Paso Doble

Paso Doble (A Dunham Novel) coverPASO DOBLE
Tales of Dunham: LaMontagne 1
a companion to We Were Gods
© 2014 by Moriah Jovan
140,000 words (540 pages)

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Emilio Bautista is bored with his job as a matador and has a PhD in chemistry he’s not using. Cube-farm chemistry is out of the question, but the universities in Andalusia are well staffed—except Covarrubias University. They’re desperate, but he still can’t get hired. Further, for the last six years, he’s been obsessed with a woman he can’t manage to meet, much less seduce.

Victoria LaMontagne is worried about her job as an English professor at Covarrubias University. After six years of being on tenure track, her new department chair is pressuring her to change her teaching style—or else. Further, she learns that one of Spain’s star matadors has a crush on her and threatens her hobby job for a chance to chat with her over tapas and flamenco.

Though they have never met, when Dr. LaMontagne and Dr. Bautista crash into each other in the administration offices, they fall into conversation as if they were long-time friends who’d had a spat. He finds her charming in spite of her tactlessness, vanity, and demanding personality. She finds him intriguing in spite of his obsession with her, his legendary promiscuity, and his boring bullfighting.

She makes him laugh. He solves her problems. They’re just friends

—right up to the first kiss …


1: SHE

July 1996
Sevilla, Spain

“WELCOME TO LEO’S!”

Emilio Bautista heard the roar of the emcee as he leaned against a grimy wall next to a grimy back alley door. He didn’t much care; he’d spent his youth in back alleys.

He found it refreshing, really, that he had to have an entrée. What annoyed him was that his entrée was that weird kid who’d criss-crossed the country with him all those years ago, but what the hell. He couldn’t judge a man who’d made something of himself out of nothing.

The bouncer jerked his head and muttered, “Dragon,” making his displeasure of Emilio’s admittance obvious. It occurred to Emilio to say something sarcastic, but refrained. He stepped over the grimy threshold of the grimy door from the grimy back alley and through yet another grimy door—

—and stepped into lavish, if generic, elegance as fine as the best hotels in the world, and Emilio demanded the best these days. He proceeded up a wide hall on a frescoed carpet, the walls on either side of him clad in rich mahogany. He heard the faint sound of live music and a female voice singing to make the angels weep with joy.

And that voice was why Emilio had done everything he could to get into Leo’s, to hear a live performance of the woman who sang him to sleep every night. She had four CDs out, but he’d scratched up two sets of them and was about to replace his third. And in all that time, he hadn’t been able to gain admittance to hear her live.

Her stage name was Velvet, but nobody knew who she was in real life. She sang torch songs and jazz standards only on Saturday nights, here in an exclusive ex-pat club to an American clientele in a deceptively residential part of Sevilla.

He had begged every American he knew for an invitation, but Leo had refused him time and time again. Emilio was a Spaniard in a very high-profile Spanish profession and the paparazzi occasionally made him its business.

Leo did not want the paparazzi to make Leo’s its business also.

There was only one person in the world who could make Leo change his mind, and, as if God had taken pity on Emilio, Sebastian Taight had shown up on his doorstep four days ago.

Emilio came to a wide set of double doors and opened it to see he stood at the back of a typical terraced nightclub that surrounded a dance floor in front of a stage. From this distance and height, he couldn’t see much of the woman on stage, but he didn’t care what she looked like. Her voice was all that mattered and it was one of the finest voices he’d heard outside of opera.

And it was so much better than it was on his state-of-the-art stereo.

A waitress took his drink order while he looked for Sebastian, then a hand wave in his periphery caught his attention. He made his way along the wall and down the middle aisle to the table where his friend sat.

“You’re welcome,” Sebastian muttered resentfully.

“I do not know why you balked,” Emilio said. “Are you and Velvet lovers, afraid she will find me more to her taste?”

“Oh, fuck off.”

“Why are you are overwrought?”

“‘Overwrought’ is a word a seventy-year-old spinster would use.”

“I am speaking English in my country,” he remarked after his drink was delivered. “You will tolerate whatever words I choose.”

“You’re still drinking cheap beer?”

“I have not had a Pabst in years and I am suddenly feeling nostalgic.”

Sebastian rolled his eyes. “You’re nostalgic for poverty now?”

“No,” he drawled. “For greasepaint.”

Sebastian laughed.

Emilio took a drink, then set the bottle down. He could only take so much of this particular piece of nostalgia. “You forget where you came from.”

“I clawed my way out of that fucking ghetto for a reason, and I don’t want to revisit it.”

Emilio didn’t have the same bitterness about having grown up in poverty that Sebastian did. Emilio remembered the good times with his mother, money or not, and the lengths she’d gone to to make the best of what little they had. And when his father was home, everything was right and safe in little Emilio’s world. Poverty was a mere inconvenience until it was time for Emilio to get the education he wanted so badly; then it became an obstacle, though not an unscalable one.

But Sebastian’s father had given away his family’s meager resources to others in need, too proud to admit that the Taights had less than everyone else. Sebastian was not bitter about what was. He was bitter that it had been completely unnecessary.

“Speaking of money,” Sebastian said, because that was what Sebastian spoke of half the time. Sex and art, which to him were largely interchangeable, took up the other half. “This introduction to Leo’s is going to cost you a hundred large.”

“No,” Emilio returned calmly. “Twenty-five. I know how you think, which is that a four-hundred-percent markup is a friendship discount.”

Sebastian growled.

“I will ask again so I can do what I came here to do. Why are you irritated?”

Sebastian didn’t answer for a moment, but then, “My aunt,” he said slowly, “worries about my cousin and somehow, her well-being has become my responsibility.”

“What cousin and why are you doing your aunt’s bidding and what has that to do with anything?”

“I have a cousin who lives here. My aunt gets worried about her and I check up on her whenever I’m in Europe.”

“Your aunt cannot check on her own child?”

“She would, but my cousin gets mad at her and won’t speak to her and makes her go away.”

“How old is this cousin?”

“Thirty-two.”

“Is she pretty? Married?”

Sebastian growled. “Don’t make me come over the table at you.”

Emilio snickered.

“She’s drop-dead gorgeous.”

Emilio turned to look at Sebastian. “I may risk it. Her marital status is irrelevant in any case.”

“She is not married, but there’s a reason for that.”

“Is she slow?”

“No. She’s a genius, which is one reason she’s not married. The other is that she’s socially inept. Cause and effect. She doesn’t relate well with the opposite sex.”

“Oh,” Emilio drawled smugly, “she is like you.”

Sebastian’s jaw tightened and he looked up to gather his temper, but finally said, “Not in the same way. Men flock to her like moths to flame, which she loves. She knows she’s beautiful, likes attention, loves the company of men. But she’s intellectually high maintenance.”

Emilio understood beautiful women who loved male attention. What he didn’t understand— “Intellectually high maintenance?”

“It means you have to be damn near a genius to get and keep her attention. That’s not the problem, though.”

Beautiful, genius, but socially inept … Ah. “She wears everybody out.”

Sebastian nodded. “Or she insults them one too many times, thinking she’s just stating facts. She’s earnest about her opinions and eager to share them.”

Emilio chuckled.

“She doesn’t do any better with women. She has one friend in the entire world, who’s just as brilliant, but only a little less weird.”

“Your cousin is Mormon?”

Sebastian nodded.

“Genius. Socially inept. Mormon. Virgin.”

“Yes.”

“Such a rare thing indeed,” Emilio drawled sarcastically.

“Maybe not, but ones who are happily virgins?”

“I submit that asexuality is its own orientation, much like homosexuality and bisexuality.”

“Mm hmm. My aunt and uncle want her to move back home—”

Emilio gave Sebastian the side-eye. “What?”

Sebastian made a gesture of weary exasperation. “They don’t think she functions in the world like a normal person because she doesn’t get along with people in the long term. They think she’s a sitting duck for— Oh, say, men like you. Us. They don’t believe she’s happy being alone. They don’t understand how she can keep a normal job. Men can’t—won’t, I don’t know—put up with her for more than a few dates, so they think her only value to men is sex. Now, she’s family and I know how she thinks, but I don’t care how beautiful a woman is, I wouldn’t stick around long enough to figure out a woman like her, either.”

Emilio was entirely confused. “Are you saying her parents think she is unlovable and therefore must move home? That is a non sequitur.”

Sebastian pursed his lips. “It’s more complicated than that. They want to protect her from realizing she’s unlovable. They think as long as she’s around family and showered with affection, she won’t fall for guys who just want to fuck her.”

“You just said she was a virgin. At thirty-two. And drop-dead gorgeous. That is not a vulnerable woman.”

“She’s not. She dates—a lot, but she’s savvy about it. She can keep the upper hand with any man.”

“Her behavior is her armor?”

Sebastian shook his head vigorously. “Oh, no. It’s just her. She wants to get married, but there aren’t a lot of guys who could put up with her, much less indulge her. She knows this. She’s not exactly curled up on her bed crying about it.”

“Hrmph.” Emilio found this sort of disconnect between parents and child quite odd, but Sebastian had a very large family and its dynamics were sometimes interesting. They made Emilio’s family look like Utopia. “She is socially inept, but not naïve or defenseless or unhappy, and refuses to be treated like a child.”

“Precisely.”

“Good for her.”

“Whenever I need to meet with you or Leo, I go hang out with her. We get along well and she’s actually really fun. I go back to my aunt and uncle, read them the riot act, and that’s that until the next time I’m in Europe. Now, what was that about setting you up with her?”

“Ah, no,” Emilio said. “While ‘beautiful’ and ‘genius’ are tempting, the rest is not.”

“That’s usually how it goes with her.”

Bored with that topic, Emilio watched Velvet for a moment. Her closely fit black dress sparkled in the lights and seemed to hint at a rather lush body. Then he closed his eyes and leaned back in the leather club chair, able to truly relax for the first time in days to that voice that did something to him.

Unfortunately, his twenty-five-thousand-dollar invitation wouldn’t be enough to buy a meeting with Velvet herself. Nor would a hundred. He knew because he’d asked. Begged. But no. Velvet didn’t meet anybody. None of the singers did. That was a Leo’s house rule, and it was inviolable.

Emilio knew how fame could make a person’s life unbearable, so he really couldn’t blame Leo for the rule and he had no real curiosity as to Velvet’s identity. He simply wanted to express his appreciation of her voice. Her talent. Her skill.

But since he couldn’t, he simply let Velvet’s voice do what it always did. Emilio’s mind drifted to tomorrow’s performance, here in his home town, when he’d get a chance to see …

Her.

A woman he only knew by sight and only on Sundays between March and October, and only when he performed in Sevilla, Her.

He’d been obsessing over Her for the last six years, unable to figure out to get Her attention after every one of his many tries had failed.

The singer’s voice rose and fell, grew and faded, ebbed and flowed. It was by turns happy, sad, melancholy, and giddy. Emilio fantasized about bringing Her here, drawing Her close, whispering in Her ear. Seducing Her. Taking Her home. Undressing Her slowly, laying Her down in a soft bed, stroking Her flawless skin.

The set break came too soon and Emilio refused to open his eyes.

“I need you to do something for me,” he muttered, too relaxed to want to even speak.

“What?”

“Come to the arena tomorrow. I have my eye on a woman and I need a helper— A— What is it called? A wingman.”

“Shit, Emilio. You’re El Draque. Surely you can do your own procurement.”

“No, this one is different. She comes to my bullfights, usually alone. This year she has a friend. That is all I know. I believe she goes to all the others, too. She is an aficionada. I have tried many ways to get her attention, short of dedicating a bull to her—and that would make me look a fool. ‘To you, my beautiful lovely woman I do not know! I want to make love to you!’”

“The last part’s a given.”

Emilio grunted.

The waitress came around just then with the supper Sebastian had ordered: good, thick pork ribs slathered in a spicy barbecue sauce. Emilio did open his eyes then and sit up, but he was still missing—

The waitress placed a pitcher of ice-cold milk in front of him. Trust Sebastian to get it right.

“Emilio, you are a strange fuck.”

“I take my pleasures where I can, my friend.” They settled in to eat and Emilio was more than pleasantly surprised. “This is not Texas barbecue.”

Sebastian heaved a longsuffering sigh. “You know what? Texas is not the whole US. Leo is from Memphis.”

Emilio promptly decided to go on a US barbecue tour that did not include Texas. “Are you going to help me?” he asked around his bite.

“Only if you want to take my seconds ’cause I’ll fuck her before you do.”

Emilio looked at him from under his brows, unexpectedly pissed off at the entirely predictable answer. “Ford.”

Sebastian’s fork froze halfway to his mouth. “You wouldn’t.”

“I would.”

“For fucking her first or not helping you at all?”

“Yes.” Emilio bent back to his meal. “Although I did forget your unnatural aversion to redheads.”

“You coulda just said that first.”

“I am not joking. Ford.”

“Shit, all right,” he grumbled. “She’s a redhead. What else?”

Emilio waved a hand. “She is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen in my life. Tall for a woman. My height, I think. Definitely Irish, with that red hair. Skin like bone china. Green eyes. I think. I hope. I do not know. I have never gotten close enough to see.”

Sebastian stared at him. “You got it bad. How does a chemist wax poetic about a woman’s skin?”

Emilio shrugged. He could see her in his mind, but Sebastian was right. He simply didn’t have the English vocabulary to do her justice and Sebastian didn’t speak Spanish well enough to understand the nuance. “She sits in the shade, but a different seat every time.”

“If you want me to do this, you’re going to have to figure out a way to let me know which one she is.”

“Get a barrera seat. If I can find her, I will point to her. After that, it is your responsibility to get her to me.”

Sebastian sighed. “For the record, that’s not what a wingman is.”

“Oh?”

“Two girls. One’s hot, one’s not. The wingman occupies the not-hot one while the other guy hits on the hot one.”

“Ah.”

That Velvet voice had begun to come out of the speakers again and Emilio relaxed even more now that Sebastian was going to put him out of his misery over Her. He didn’t know why it hadn’t occurred to him before now to ask—well, blackmail

Knowing She would be in the stands the next day to watch him perform made Emilio unaccountably jittery. It had ever since he’d first spotted Her six years ago in the stands and then again the next time he performed in his home town. All that thick curly red hair down to the middle of Her arms surrounded by a sea of brunettes and blondes, the pale skin surrounded by golden and copper tans … Always dressed in white or pastels, sometimes crisp, sometimes floaty, always ephemeral.

Definitely eye-catching.

Her smile, sly. Her gestures, sensuous. Her face, perfection.

He’d never heard her voice, but he couldn’t imagine it as anything less than wonderful.

“Oh, shit,” Sebastian muttered, jerking Emilio out of his trance. He followed Sebastian’s gaze across the nightclub and down a step or two to see a very pretty young woman looking straight at Emilio.

“Is she—”

“An heiress I embarrassed the hell out of in Berlin last year at an embassy dinner. Yvette Mallery.”

“What did she do?”

“I overheard her making bets with her friends as to how fast she could get my room key. When she hit me up for it, I told her I didn’t fuck daddy’s little princesses. In front of everyone, which included the Secretary of State and half the State Department.”

Emilio almost laughed as he watched her advance. She was attractive and she obviously knew the score, so Emilio cocked an eyebrow at her.

“Better be careful,” Sebastian said blithely. “Never know what kind of little friends she’s got.”

“Kindly remember who gave you the lecture your father should have when you decided your virginity was becoming a burden. At twenty.”

Sebastian grunted his acknowledgment of Emilio’s tutelage so many years ago.

He watched as the American socialite sauntered toward their table. Thinking about Her wasn’t getting Emilio anywhere and the only way he could calm jitters caused by Her was to get laid by someone else, since She wasn’t an option at the moment. Although this woman was young—mid-twenties—she suited Emilio’s needs perfectly, as demonstrated by the fact that she had the gall to approach Emilio while Sebastian was in the vicinity.

“Dragon,” she purred when she reached their table and pulled out a chair to sit, blatantly ignoring Sebastian. “Fancy seeing a matador here.”

“Miss Mallery.”

That was when she slid a glance at Sebastian. “Of course you would know my name. King Midas here must have told you.”

“Stuff it, Yvette,” Sebastian snapped. “You got what you deserved.”

“You should know your prey before you go hunting, Miss Mallery,” Emilio said calmly. “King Midas does not care for redheads.”

That startled her. “You don’t?” she asked Sebastian.

“No.”

“Well—”

“Miss Mallery,” Emilio said, “are you here to give me your room key or to nettle Sebastian? At the moment, you are interrupting my evening.”

Her mouth tightened when Sebastian chuckled, but Emilio was serious. He could take her or leave her, but he needed to get it decided so he could go back to listening to the music so he could fantasize about Her.

She stood and flipped her keycard next to his plate. “Don’t keep me waiting too long,” she said and walked off.

Emilio grunted and signaled a waitress. “Do you have key lime pie, perhaps? Also, pecan?”

She smiled and disappeared.

“Are you going to reapply for that professorship?”

Well, there went Emilio’s night, right into the sewer. “I do not want to talk about that,” he grumbled.

“You did apply for it and got turned down again, or you didn’t apply for it?”

“I have my annual interview in two weeks, at which time I will be told, ‘Thank you for applying, Dr. Bautista, but not this year. Try again after you have hung up your cape.’”

“Bastards,” Sebastian mumbled.

Exactly. Emilio didn’t know why he continued to try. Every year, Covarrubias University dangled El Draque on its marionette strings because he went begging for the scrap of attention that he would never get.

“Have you tried the University of Sevilla?”

“I did. I do. Their department is fully staffed with instructors my age and most of those are tenured. Excellent program.”

“So no one there is going anywhere soon.”

“Exactly. It is the same at the rest of the area colleges, whereas Covarrubias cannot seem to retain chemistry professors who can teach in English, yet they will not hire me.”

“That sounds like a bad situation, if you ask me. Are you sure you want to start a brand new career behind the organizational eight-ball?”

Not really, but it was Emilio’s only chance, since he was not willing to move his family elsewhere.

“I have an idea,” Sebastian said slowly. Emilio glanced up from his pie to see an expression he’d grown used to over the years. “Okay, look, Em. They’re never going to hire you, even if you do retire. Quit dancing to their tune. What you need are a couple of breakthrough applications for your formulas and I have a cousin who can do that.”

Emilio pursed his lips. Waved his fork for Sebastian to continue.

“Étienne LaMontagne. You heard of him?”

“The name sounds familiar. I think he wrote an article for one of the journals I subscribe to. Inventor of some sort?”

“Inventor, engineer, jack of all machinery, but specializes in wind, solar, water power. His wife’s an alternate-energy architect and she comes up with ideas that belong in science fiction, they’re so advanced. Somehow, he finds a way to do what she wants.”

Emilio looked at Sebastian speculatively. “You have my attention. Where do I fit into this?”

“Her designs require him to build machinery that needs special chemicals or something to work. Étienne just had a falling out with his last chemist because the shit didn’t work right. Chemist wouldn’t—or couldn’t, I don’t know—try to figure out how to change his formula to work with Étienne’s machine.”

“Why did your cousin not try to figure out how to change his toy to work with the formula?”

“He did. When it comes to making Tess happy, Étienne has no ego. He wants something that works and whatever he has to do to get that, he’ll do. But if he’s done everything he can think of and the problem can only be with someone else, he’s impossible to work with or for. If your shit works with his, he’s fine.”

That put a different view on it.

“So what is he working on right now?”

“I have no idea and I couldn’t explain it if I did. What I do know is that Étienne is without a chemist and he’s frantically looking for one because it’s holding up the project.”

Emilio shrugged. What did he have to lose? “Okay. Give me his number.”

While Sebastian signaled a waitress to bring him a pen and paper, Emilio squinted through the darkness, down the terraces of diners at bistro tables, to the intimately lit stage.

He blinked. Squinted harder.

He sat up a little and tried to focus on her face. Dammit, he needed new contact lenses.

He arose and strode down the stairs to get a closer look. He would have descended another two steps until he was on the dance floor, but found himself caught by the collar and dragged backward. He caught his balance and turned to see Sebastian glaring at him.

“I want to meet her,” Emilio murmured after following Sebastian back up the stairs and re-seating himself.

“The singers never meet anybody,” Sebastian snarled. “I told you that before I agreed to get you in here, and you went out of your way to assure me—”

“I know her from somewhere.”

“Not possible. She doesn’t run in your circles.”

Emilio’s head snapped right. “How do you know what circles she does and does not run in?”

Sebastian sighed heavily. “She’s an American ex-pat. Think about that. You’re either imagining things or trying to meet her was your intention all along.”

Emilio growled but turned his attention back to the stage to continue digging through his memory. No, he had had no intention of asking to meet her, but he hadn’t imagined it, either. He knew that face.

“Soooo,” Sebastian drawled. “About tomorrow—”

Tomorrow.

“Mother of God,” Emilio whispered, still staring at Velvet as she sang. “That is Her.”

“Who, what?”

Emilio pointed at the singer. “Velvet. She is the woman I see in the stands. The one I wanted you to arrange—”

What?!” Sebastian breathed, his voice full of horror. Emilio looked at him. Sebastian’s expression was as horror-stricken as his voice.

“That is Her,” Emilio repeated, his heart pounding and his blood thrumming through his veins that he was so close to her, that after six years he finally knew something about the woman in the stands. “Velvet is my mystery woman. I would never forget that face.”

Sebastian slowly covered his mouth and massaged it. “Holy shit,” he muttered.

“I agree!” Emilio retorted. “I want to meet her and you can make that happen. I will pay whatever you want. Take a million out of my account. Please.

Sebastian released a very slow breath, his eyes closing and his body slumping. “Let me think about it,” he muttered.

“Think about it quickly. If I do not have an introduction by siesta, I will call her out tomorrow night in front of half of Spain.”


2: I’VE GOT A CRUSH ON YOU

“El Draque wants to meet me?”

“Yes,” Sebastian returned morosely, his elbows propped on the kitchen table and his head in his palms.

Victoria LaMontagne leaned back against her counter and crossed her arms over her chest, simply listening as he told her the conversation.

There was a long silence in the room as Victoria’s mind tumbled it all over. Any other woman would be flattered. Not Victoria. Victoria was beautiful. Of course she’d caught his attention, because there was no reason he wouldn’t have noticed her.

Victoria knew her toreros. That one was particularly bad news—and now he knew she was Velvet. Such was her luck lately.

“And he threatened to blow my cover if I didn’t show up at MiMi’s for tapas?” she asked.

“Yes. I can’t ask him not to without making him suspicious. I already told him you don’t run in his circles, but I recovered that slip.”

“You let him into Leo’s, right? Just tell him if he says anything, you’ll ban him permanently.”

“Vic, it’s beyond that now. He threatened to out me as Ford and offered me a million dollars. He really wants you.”

Of course he did. Most men did.

She sighed. There was only one thing she could do if Sebastian couldn’t find a way to get El Draque off his back. “I’ll just not go tonight,” she muttered, turning to the sink to do her dishes. “If Velvet doesn’t show up at his fight, then he can hardly call me out. What’s he going to tell the press? ‘Velvet is this woman who comes to my performances in Sevilla but I don’t know who she is and she’s not here today anyway.’ That’ll go over well.”

There was a long silence. Then, “But you’re mad.”

“Of course I’m mad. I wouldn’t drop tons of cash during bullfight season if I didn’t love it. Bautista’s not my favorite, so I’m not going to miss him, but my current favorite is appearing tonight with him, and it’s the last time this season he’ll be in Sevilla, so yes. I’m mad because of that and because now I’m also out three hundred bucks for shade barrera tickets for me and Lydia.”

Sebastian rustled behind her, then she heard the soft flutter of paper.

“Thank you.”

“Ah, speaking of Lydia … ”

“Leave her alone about Jack. You didn’t tell him she was here, did you?”

“No,” he grumbled, then sighed. “Vic, Emilio’s not going to give up. He never gives up, even when he should and he’s been trying to get to you for six years.”

She scowled over her shoulder. “All he had to do was send somebody up to tap me on the shoulder.”

“He’s tried that. Tried to do it himself. Missed you every time. He said last year he was only in Sevilla six times the whole season. One year he was here nine times? That gives him, what, an average of three or four times a season to try? You sit in a different place every time. All he knows is to look for you in the shade. Sometimes it takes him a while to find you, especially after the sun goes down.”

Victoria pursed her lips. She could see the difficulty there, as well as the timing of a corrida de toros and who should be where and when.

“And he’s a little touchy about dedicating a bull to a woman he doesn’t know.”

She grimaced. “That would not have made me happy, no.”

“Which is why he hasn’t done it yet, but now he has a name to attach to you.”

“This is nice and all, but I don’t want to be followed around by the paparazzi and Leo would kill me. The university would have a cow and I don’t make enough from my CDs to support myself.”

“That’s because you signed a shitty contract.”

“No,” Victoria drawled, “it’s not. It was the best Knox could do before the record label walked away. Besides that, instrumental jazz is popular, but vocal is not and I don’t sing in Spanish.”

“Emilio loves your singing.” She stilled immediately. “His endorsement would boost your sales.”

“He does?” she asked warily.

“Yes,” Sebastian said snidely. “That’s what I’m trying to tell you. Why do you think he wanted into Leo’s so badly? He didn’t care about Velvet. He just wanted to hear Velvet sing live. But then he recognized you as his personal unicorn. Bonus!”

“Hrmph.”

Silence while Sebastian looked down at the table and worried a piece of paper. “Doesn’t that bug you? A man just seeing a random woman in the stands and getting fixated?”

The question confused her. “No. Why would it?”

“It would freak most women out.”

“Sebastian, in case you haven’t noticed, I leave drooling men in my wake wherever I go.”

He groaned and dropped his forehead on the table.

“Being admired from afar is like air. It’s just there.”

“You and Étienne,” he grumbled into the Formica.

“I’m prettier than he is and if he ever says otherwise it’s because he’s jealous.” She paused and thought. “El Draque wants me because he can’t have me. What he doesn’t know is he’s never going to be able to have me. I don’t care how you do it, just keep him away from me. The last thing I need is a star torero stalking me.”

•  •  •
She wasn’t there.

She wasn’t there.

SHE WASN’T THERE!

It was bad enough he’d waited at MiMi’s for a woman who hadn’t shown, but she had also ditched the bullfight during which he’d planned to dedicate his last bull to her.

Sebastian was there sitting with Velvet’s little friend, but neither of them seemed to be having a good time, alternately whispering heatedly or glowering at each other. They were barely paying attention to the performances.

Not possible. She doesn’t run in your circles.

Emilio’s eyes narrowed. He wasn’t above pulling out another threat to expose Sebastian as the art world’s latest It Boy “Ford,” painter of nude females.

He snapped his fingers at his manager and pointed to Sebastian. “Go tell the black Irish that Ford will present himself at my house after the corrida de toros.”

She shook her head as if it was just another of El Draque’s weird requests, but headed into the alley between the inside wooden wall and the spectator stands. Sebastian started and then his face clouded with anger. He sent a glare down at Emilio, who smiled benignly.

Two hours later, Emilio stormed into his bedroom suite, yanking the ribbon out of his queue before allowing his squire to begin the tiresome process of undressing him.

“You tell me who she is,” Emilio demanded, “or I will personally call the Wall Street Journal with the tip that King Midas has a night job.”

Sebastian, lounging in the sitting area, growled.

“You know her,” Emilio ground out, yanking his tie off. “Did you think I would credit fate for putting you in Velvet’s seat next to her little friend? With whom, I noted, you do not get along.”

“We get along fine,” Sebastian muttered. “We’re having a difference of opinion on what she should do about a man who’s pining over her. I, having loyalties to both him and her, am stuck in the middle.”

That brought Emilio up short and he slid a glance at Sebastian. “Why are you telling me this? Is this in any way analogous to me and Velvet?”

“There is no you and Velvet,” Sebastian snapped. “The point is, even though this man loves her and wants to commit to her, she refuses to believe it.”

That made no sense to Emilio. “Why?”

“Because he’s a slut. Just—like—us. He has zero credibility for commitment and because of that, I can’t in good conscience plead his case. He’s pissed at me because I refuse to tell him where she is so he can plead his own case.”

Emilio pursed his lips and thought about that a moment. “Velvet dates for commitment.”

“Marriage, more specifically.”

He dragged a deep breath in through his nose. “Point taken. And so you warned her.”

“I did. She is not impressed with you, either as a decent human being or torero.”

Emilio would have dropped onto his bed if his squire weren’t peeling him out of his skin-tight pants. “She finds me lacking as a torero?!

“Right. Your compadre out there—Frederico whatever—he’s her favorite, and she’s pissed that you deprived her of her last chance to see her favorite torero this season. That’s almost a direct quote.”

Emilio felt like he’d gotten a horn shoved in his remaining kidney. Shown up by Frederico? The one barely out of diapers with two bulls’ ears to show for half a season? To his mystery woman? Whose voice Emilio worshipped? That woman did not know anything about bullfighting if she thought Frederico was better.

“So,” Sebastian continued with a deep smugness Emilio wanted to beat out of him, “because you’re fucking half the wealthiest women in Europe, you’re in the same boat my friend is in with his woman.”

“You know possibly seven people in Sevilla,” he gritted. “How is it one of those is Velvet?”

No answer, so Emilio looked up to see Sebastian flipping a coin through his fingers, looking out the French door, his jaw clenched.

Then Emilio connected the dots— “Your cousin,” he said flatly. “The thirty-two-year-old socially awkward ball-busting virgin.”

Sebastian took a deep breath.

“Please do not tell me she is a good Mormon.”

Pristine. Except for the bullfights on the Sabbath. And,” he grumbled, “she’s Étienne LaMontagne’s twin sister.”

Emilio shooed his squire away and fell back against the wall, letting his head hit it with a thunk. “Shit,” he whispered. How had he managed that? It was the trifecta of bad luck, particularly when everything Sebastian had told him about her started rolling through his brain.

“Can I go now?” Sebastian asked caustically. “Because at this point, I don’t really care if you out me. I don’t make my living with my paintbrushes and I’m going to protect my family no matter what. She told me to keep you away from her, so that’s what I’m going to do.”

“Tell me something,” he said slowly, dreading the answer. “Has she always known you and I are friends? How we met?”

“Yes.”

“And she has never … ?”

“No, she has never asked me about you, never asked to meet you. Since you said you weren’t interested in her, it shouldn’t make any difference.”

Emilio heaved a great sigh as this hope he had nurtured so long slipped through his fingers like water. Something inside him died a little. He should have left her in the stands and in his imagination because he was far too old to have invested so much in a fantasy.

“Tell me her first name,” he asked anyway, not knowing why. “Give me that much.”

“Let it go, Emilio. I told you she was savvy, and her clumsy earnest opinions aren’t even in the same league as her intentional cruelty. She knows too much about you not to grind you under her heel the second she meets you.”


3: DO YOU BELIEVE IN JAZZ?

Emilio was walking into the rector’s office at Covarrubias University for his yearly “interview”—

—and Velvet was storming out of it.

Neither of them saw the other until he was on his ass in the hallway and she was frantically picking up the papers she’d dropped when they collided.

Emilio stood and watched her warily, wondering if she’d recognize him so closely, without his suit of lights and his hair not slicked back into a queue. He’d never felt so naked in his life, knowing she didn’t like him, didn’t want him anywhere near her.

She, on the other hand, hadn’t looked up at all, and he could barely keep himself from touching her glorious red hair. She was more beautiful up close than she was from afar. Grief at the loss of his mystery woman, his unexpected proximity to her after he’d spent two weeks trying to let go, and Sebastian’s description of her shoved the horn farther into his back.

But then he noticed her growling. “Allow me to assist,” he said gently, bending on one knee in front of her. To his surprise, she didn’t shoo him away, as he would have expected an American woman to do. She stood and silently accepted his help picking up her papers.

He took the opportunity to scan her documents. Papers, reports, quizzes. Grades. American English and Culture. Department of International Business. Junior- and senior-level classes. Sloppy, impatient notations. Some papers bleeding. Sarcastic comments.

This usage is not in the dictionary because it’s industry jargon. You are here to learn your industry’s jargon. Pay attention.

You got this right on the quiz Monday. It’s Wednesday. You forgot it between then and now?

Funny how you and two of your classmates got the same four answers wrong. F. My office Tuesday at nine a.m. sharp. If you’re late, I’ll fail you for the term.

His eyebrow rose, but a whoosh of soft mint-colored fabric and a hint of peppermint brought him back to his task. He couldn’t tell anything of her legs through the elegant drape of her trousers, and they were long enough to pool over most of what looked like genuine ballet slippers dyed violet.

He finally had her documents semi-organized enough to hand back to her, so he couldn’t legitimately delay any longer. He stood.

She still wasn’t looking at him, though. Her head was down, her curly red hair held back from her face by a wide silky scarf in swirling light greens and lavender. She was flipping through the papers she’d managed to gather up, sorting them clumsily, putting them in order, frantic to get out. She was angry and her face was flushed.

It was all so very romantic comedy, he almost smiled in spite of his confusion and anger.

He saw a man across the massive room from out of the corner of his eye and tensed, bracing for an unexpected confrontation. He was supposed to meet with the university’s rector, Dr. Kilgore, not a high-placed member of the administration board, one who had a very good reason to hate Emilio.

His life was riddled with bad luck lately.

Dr. Sanz gave him a hateful smile. “Ah, Dr. Emilio Bautista,” he purred viciously. “I’ll be with you in a few minutes.”

Velvet’s head snapped up, and Emilio could almost feel the chips from her ice blue eyes digging into his skin the second she recognized him. Her pretty red-orange eyebrows arched up into her freckled hairline.

Doctor Bautista?” she growled as if they knew each other well and she was incensed he had been keeping a secret from her.

“Chemistry,” he said shortly.

“You’re a chemist?” she breathed incredulously.

“Yes.”

“You teach here?”

“Not yet. That’s why I’m here.”

The bottom of her very delectable mouth dropped open, and there was nothing more he wanted to do than kiss it. It would be so easy. They were standing so closely they were touching and they were the same height. She wasn’t guarding herself, wasn’t attempting to back away, wasn’t in any way intimidated by how closely they stood. It was as if she hadn’t noticed.

“Sebastian said you’re angry with me.”

He didn’t know why he said it, because picking up the threads of a dropped conversation they’d never had, not pretending, not skirting the issue, wasn’t going to help anything.

Let it go, Emilio.

She huffed. “I didn’t want you to out me and I panicked. I could’ve gotten a different seat, but it didn’t occur to me in time.” Her mouth compressed and her eyes narrowed. “You were going to dedicate your last bull to me—or, you know. That other person I am.”

Damn. “Ah … yes. I wanted to get your attention.”

“Oh, you got it!” she chortled. “Just so you know, I have ways of dealing with stalkers. I’m used to them.”

“I had no intention of stalking you,” he replied calmly. “I would have asked if you would care to have tapas with me and I would have respected your answer.”

She looked at him with suspicion. “Hrmph. Are you going to hold my stage name over my head the way you hold Sebastian’s over his?”

“No,” he said firmly, and he meant it. He was usually underhanded if not malicious when he didn’t get what he wanted, but he took heart that she hadn’t ground him under her heel—yet—and suddenly, earning this woman’s trust was more important to him than anything else. Hence, he was now not going to ask her to have tapas. “But I don’t know your real name, so … ”

She blinked. “Oh. It’s Victoria.”

Victoria.

He inclined his head slightly. “Victoria.” He loved how that felt in his mouth. “Thank you. I have no intention of outing you, and I would have counted it a great honor if you would have allowed me to listen to you sing live again. That was all I wanted from … that other person you are.”

Her mouth twitched in thought. “Leo gave you the boot?”

He nodded.

She hesitated. “I’ll think about it. Show up Saturday just in case.”

That he hadn’t expected. If Emilio were prone to elaborate displays of emotion, he would have turned handsprings all over the university grounds. But he wasn’t, so he merely said, “Thank you. I enjoy your talent and skill.”

Again she paused, looking suddenly quite confused. He could understand why: It wasn’t every day a celebrity turned into a groupie, especially when one didn’t care for said celebrity. “Well … um. Hm. Thank you.”

“Dr. Bautista!” came Sanz’s voice again, but now he was striding toward them. Victoria stiffened and her breathing quickened unevenly. Ah, here they were allies by default. “I see you’ve met Dr. LaMontagne.”

“Yes,” Emilio said smoothly. “We have a common acquaintance.”

Sanz looked between them and pointedly noted the lack of space between Emilio’s chest and Victoria’s breasts.

She seemed oblivious to their bodies’ proximity or Sanz’s notation of it.

… socially inept …

“I sincerely hope that is the only thing you have in common,” he said calmly.

Emilio nearly put his fist through Sanz’s face, but Victoria laid her hand lightly on Emilio’s chest as if she knew what he wanted to do and was calming him down. “It’s not, as a matter of fact,” she said brightly. “We both love American jazz standards, particularly torch songs.”

Torch songs didn’t translate to Spanish very well, but jazz was enough to get the point across. She didn’t give Sanz a chance to react before turning back to Emilio. She gave him a smile that would make the sun shield its eyes and purred, “So nice to see you again, Draque.”

Emilio sighed and rolled his eyes up to the ceiling when Sanz growled right on cue. “Doctor LaMontagne!” he snapped. “We do not refer to Dr. Bautista by that name.”

“Why not?” she asked airily. “I like it.”

“It’s unprofessional.”

She gave him an exaggerated pout. “But that’s his professional name.”

“He is not here to represent that profession.”

Emilio had to break this up quickly if he hoped to get next year’s chance to interview for this damned job with Kilgore.

“Dr. LaMontagne,” Emilio said smoothly, taking her hand in his and raising it somewhere in the general vicinity of his lips for an air kiss. “I will see you again when God wills, no?”

She looked at him, but her expression was inscrutable. “Yes, thank you.” She cast a glance at Sanz and bid him adios also, then turned and strutted down the hallway and around the corner. He had never been so happy to watch a woman walk away from him in his life. Not with that perfect ass shown to perfection in her mint flowy trousers, her hips swaying perfectly, waist nipping perfectly, curly red hair flowing down her back and bouncing perfectly against her white silk blouse.

“How can you stand to show your face here?” Sanz hissed.

“Is there something wrong with it?” Emilio touched his chin. “Where’s Kilgore? My appointment was with him.”

“He had a family emergency, and isn’t it fortunate I was the only one available to meet with you. Are you going to attempt to make Dr. LaMontagne another conquest? Because as a gentleman, I must warn you about her.”

She is not like that,” Emilio said tightly, suddenly embarrassed that a mere conversation, polite, appropriate, would get Her tagged that way. “Unlike your wife.”

Sanz snarled. “I would like to see you die on the sword of Dr. LaMontagne’s vicious tongue. She will make you wish that bull had killed you.”

“Can’t get a bite of her, eh, Sanz?” Emilio drawled.

“I don’t care for women with ice in their veins, but I would be happy to see what condition you’re in when she gets done with you. Good day, El Draque. Please do try again next year so I can have the pleasure of denying you. Again.”


4: WITHOUT A DREAM IN MY HEART

I admire your talent and skill.

Victoria, although still furious with Sanz for his interference with university business that Rector Kilgore was rightfully handling, didn’t really know what to think about her unexpected meet-cute with the Dragon. She would have been angry if she thought he’d arranged it, but he couldn’t have. She’d known a month ago they had a candidate to interview today, and she had only been summoned to see Sanz an hour ago.

So the Dragon had a PhD in chemistry, wanted a job teaching chemistry, and wasn’t likely to get it anytime soon, especially if he couldn’t teach in English.

He was also helpful and polite, gracious, and not pushy.

He had wished for another chance to hear Velvet sing live, but didn’t expect to get it.

He had not asked her out after all, and, most importantly, he had not complimented her voice or her beauty.

She couldn’t remember the last time someone had complimented her skill. The talent she took with a grain of salt; it was almost like complimenting her voice. She’d been born with it, and it had nothing to do with anything she did. Just like her beauty.

It was the skill she took to heart. Either he had rehearsed that in preparation for meeting her or he really was only interested in hearing her sing.

He didn’t care about Velvet. He just wanted to hear Velvet sing live.

That might be all he wanted from Velvet—

… recognized you as his personal unicorn.

—but that wasn’t all he wanted from the mystery woman he’d been lusting after for the last six years.

Sebastian knew him better than most people did. They’d been friends for ten years and while they had a bit of a rivalry, they also benefited materially from the relationship. Between Sebastian’s assurances about the Dragon’s interest in Velvet, and the Dragon’s discernment and acknowledgment of her skill, she was tempted to believe the man had some depth. And chemistry PhDs didn’t get awarded to just anybody.

How in the world did a torero pop up with a PhD in chemistry? Or was it the other way around? How did a scientist pop up in a bullring? Nobody knew this about him, clearly, because it had never been reported. Then again, the sportswriters had missed the most obvious thing about him for the past three years and it was right under their noses every Sunday from March to October.

His uncanny ability to keep his private life absolutely private added to his mystique—no personal information on Emilio Bautista was available except for El Draque’s long string of flings. It kept the gossip rags happy and camouflaged everything else. He had to be seeding that information.

The one thing he neither hid nor seeded was his opinion on other toreros. He was one of few loners in the rarefied atmosphere of bullfighters and he made sure he stayed that way with scathing critiques of his colleagues’ skill, talent, and artistry. And because his critiques and insults were so entertaining, he was asked his opinion quite often.

But how, she mused further as she headed toward her office, giving the statue of the university’s namesake her usual caress, had he made her feel so … funny?

It was the only way she could describe it, with a little tickle in her belly and a little hitch in her breath and a little tremble in her knees. On TV, he was dour and his face was quite weathered. In the ring, she couldn’t tell because she was too far away, and wasn’t interested enough to train her binoculars on the toreros’ faces.

But up close and personal, he was striking in a rather ordinary way, with clear light brown eyes in a lean and far less weathered face—defined cheekbones, a strong jaw, and perfectly masculine lips with a hint of a permanent smile. It was an open face, a happy face. His skin was a light olive. His black hair fell in loose curls around his ears and over his collar and, occasionally, across his forehead. He’d been wearing an unstructured ivory linen suit with a white shirt unbuttoned at the collar, and tan pigskin loafers. He was no taller than her five-nine. He was lean and muscular, whereas Victoria was lush, with perfect curves in all the perfect places.

This was how it should be.

When in street clothes, there was nothing special about him, particularly as compared to the toreros who had side gigs as models and actors. Emilio Bautista looked like a million other ordinarily striking men in Andalusia. Which meant he could slip into any crowd and get lost in a sea of people who looked just like him.

He might be ordinary looking, but he was very clever.

Clever enough to speak immediately and directly to the issue between them as if they were long-time friends who’d had a little misunderstanding yesterday that they were eager to clear up so they could get on with the business of being friends, when in reality, they were strangers who’d spent two weeks stewing over the fact that they’d already metaphysically slammed into each other.

Of course, after Sebastian had told her how the Dragon had reacted to his description of her, she shouldn’t assume he’d been stewing, but his immediate acknowledgment of their very short and mediated relationship made her believe he had.

“Dr. LaMontagne, may I carry those for you?”

Victoria stopped in the middle of the quad and looked over her shoulder to see the Dragon only a few steps behind her. Now that she thought about it, her books were getting rather heavy, so she said, “Certainly. Thank you,” and dumped them in his arms.

He caught them with a grunt, unprepared for her easy acceptance nor for how heavy they were. She remained still while he arranged them, then started toward her office again when he graciously gestured for her to precede him.

“I thought you had a meeting with Sanz?”

He grimaced. “I was supposed to speak with Kilgore. The minute you dropped the ‘Draque,’ it was over. I’ve been trying to get a job here for years. Every year, I get called in for an interview, and every year they say no.”

“You speak English?”

“Very well, though I’ve been told it’s painfully formal.”

“Can you teach in it?”

He rolled his eyes. “If I couldn’t, I wouldn’t bother applying.”

She blinked. “So … what’s the problem?”

“My job. They don’t want the publicity, don’t want the influx of students who aren’t suited for chemistry, don’t want the possibility I’d die or get seriously injured in the middle of the term.”

“I agree that your death or incapacitation might be inconvenient, but there’s an easy way to get around the enrollment issue.”

He inclined his head sagely. “There are several. Every one of them has been shot down.”

Never gives up even when he should.

“That can’t be the only thing. The science department’s a mess.”

“I’ve heard. Why is that?”

She shrugged. “Disorganization. The department chair who just rotated in isn’t equipped to manage. They had to cancel three sections of freshman chemistry for fall. If you want the job, but they won’t hire you, it’s personal.”

He shrugged. “They like keeping me on a string.”

“Yes, but why?

“I graduated from the University of Sevilla,” he said amiably, “but I came from poverty. I was on scholarship the entire time. I thought having graduated at the top of my class, being able to teach in English, and having money would take care of that.”

“Covarrubias is old money,” Victoria said matter-of-factly. “Old American money and older European money and ancient Asian money. Old money has standards.”

“I learned that the hard way.”

“Except they’re desperate, so that can’t be the real problem.” Her eyes narrowed. “Answer the question.”

He sighed. “I may or may not have known Señora Sanz a bit better than might be considered proper.”

Victoria’s first instinct was to recoil, and she did, but it was funny. She started to laugh in spite of herself. “Go you! Old money loves to go slumming with new money.”

He cast her a glance that could wither stone.

Nailed him. Victoria laughed harder. “Oh, that’s precious. Spiked in the neck with your own banderilla.”

“I’m so glad you find this amusing.”

She nudged him with an elbow until the corner of his mouth turned up. “Why do you keep trying?”

He threw up a hand. “I keep thinking someday they’ll be desperate enough. It’s a dream. A goal. I can’t give up now.”

Victoria stopped immediately, her amusement completely gone, and demanded, “Why are you basing your goals on decisions somebody else has to make?”

The Dragon looked at her for many long seconds, his jaw set as if he were dazed by her sudden mood shift and flummoxed by the question. “Uh … I … don’t know,” he finally said in an odd tone.

“I can’t read your voice,” she said flatly. “Are you angry? Confused? Is this something that has never occurred to you before?”

“Yes,” he said immediately. “I mean, no, it’s never occurred to me before.”

“You have money. Build your own lab.”

He closed his eyes with something that might be frustration. “Dr. LaMontagne—”

“Victoria, please.”

“Thank you. Victoria. My goal is to teach, not necessarily to teach here. Every other university in Andalusia is well staffed and I have no intention of relocating or commuting beyond that.”

Victoria was instantly angry again. Not at him, but at her new chair, who’d made teaching a nightmare the last six months. “Trust me,” she growled. “You don’t want to do that.”

“How do you know?” he snapped.

“Were you getting jerked around like this before your imprudent liaison?”

“Yes.”

Her eyebrows shot into her hairline. “Was this liaison imprudent or targeted?”

“Neither. Opportunity knocked. On my hotel room door.”

“Did you know she was Sanz’s wife?”

“Yes.”

She started laughing again. “Oh, you are a bastard.”

His eyelids lowered and he gave her a slow, wicked smile. “You have no idea.”

She turned to walk again, and he stepped in with her easily. “And you still come back to get jerked around. Is this a repeating loop? Rejection – affair – rejection – affair?”

His wicked smile turned wry. “No. I was angry. I didn’t think beyond the opportunity. And for the record, I made sure she enjoyed herself.”

Victoria snorted. “I’m sure that’s what you’d like to think.”

“Are you impugn— Never mind.”

She bit her bottom lip, but she couldn’t help her snickers. “What’s the party line on your qualifications?”

“Kilgore wants me to quit the ring and then he’ll consider it. He doesn’t think I’m serious.”

“The rector reports to the board and Sanz is board chairman for the next three years. But! A word to the wise. Even if you did get it, you’d hate it by the time you got comfortable with your lesson plans.”

“Why?”

She cast him a glance. He seemed curious. Possibly intrigued.

“I’ve been here six years. I’ve had to deal with my share of politics. Backstabbing. The assignment of classes you don’t want to teach, knocking you down a peg or two whenever possible, nitpicking. Crap workshops and panels at the conferences. I don’t care about that stuff and it stopped happening when everybody figured out I’ll take it all, do it well and in record time, and not give a hoot about anybody else’s opinion.

“What I care about is that though I’ve been on tenure track all this time, every year I’m passed over. But now it’s even worse because my new chair rotated in and he hates me. All of a sudden, there’s a new thing to do constantly. ‘You need to complete this next thing, Dr. LaMontagne.’ ‘You didn’t tell me I had to do that thing last term.’ ‘Oh, it’s a new requirement.’ Every time I complete that thing, he finds something else he wants me to do.

“The board’s less petty than my chair, but Sanz is the chairman, so obviously he has more reason to hate you than my chair has to hate me. You’re never going to get off Sanz’s black list. If you quit the ring, they’d find another thing for you to do. It’d be endless, just to say they can make you do their bidding.”

He said nothing to that, but it appeared he was thinking about it.

“Be careful what you wish for, Dr. Bautista,” she said. “You might get it.”

He snorted suddenly. “I’m Dr. Bautista now?”

“I don’t want you to call me by that other name, so I suppose I shouldn’t call you by your other name, especially since I ruined this year’s interview for you. This is real life.”

He grunted his agreement.

“What do you do all week?” she asked suddenly. “Besides train?”

He paused, then sighed. “I take care of my family.”

Her head snapped left, nausea exploding in her belly. “You’re married?”

“No,” he drawled, as if he’d expected her to jump to that conclusion. “My mother has cancer and my siblings are much younger than I am.”

That blew Victoria’s mind. She couldn’t see either of her brothers or male cousins dropping their lives, their pleasures, to stay home and take care of their families. If they had families.

She cast him a glance, then started to laugh again.

“I see you’re not impressed,” he said dryly.

She shrugged, still laughing. “Guilty. Frilly cherry-print aprons will chew up your machismo in no time.”

Suddenly, it was his turn to laugh. “You have no tact whatsoever.”

Victoria grinned at him. “Not a speck.”

“You didn’t even ask about my mother. Most people do, even though they don’t care.”

“I’m also thoughtless and self-absorbed.”

“My mother is doing well,” he drawled with a broad smile. “Thank you for asking. As it happens,” he continued, “I do have a lab in which I spend the better part of my days. I’m not exactly, ah— The movie, ah— Mr. Mom.”

“Oh no? Pocket protectors and slide rules, then?”

He chuckled. “So now you know my conflict with Sanz. What is yours?”

She sighed. “I have no tact, and I’m thoughtless and self-absorbed.”

“We’ve established this.”

“No, I mean, that’s their beef with me. I offend two dozen students every term and some of them complain loudly enough for Ching—my chair—to get a phone call from mommy or daddy.”

The Dragon pursed his lips and shook his head. “There’s more to it than that. You were too angry for someone who doesn’t seem interested in or capable of playing the games.”

Victoria blinked, shocked that he would notice. “Uh … ” She threw a thumb over her shoulder. “Sanz tells me Ching is recommending I not only be passed over for tenure again, but that he wants to knock me down to teaching freshman business English.”

“Why?”

She gave him her duh look. “I have no idea. I probably insulted him somehow and instead of saying I hurt his feelings, he’s just getting back at me. I don’t know. Kilgore tries to keep him off my back, brushes it off like it doesn’t mean anything, but it does. I don’t care that he hates me, but he interferes with my routine and my pedagogy. Sanz—who shouldn’t be sticking his nose in Kilgore’s business—doesn’t know me well enough to judge, he’s read some of Ching’s reports about the way I teach and is starting to have concerns, and he’s not quite sure why my position is in the international business department anyway.”

He gave her an odd look.

“I know. It’s confusing. I teach American culture for business purposes. I’m kind of my own little language trade school. I have sections on trade-specific jargon. Those get added as business professors request them. I also teach a section on American slang and profanity, regional dialects, and accents.

“I’m in the business department because my students need very specific language skills to get excellent jobs with multibillion-dollar companies all over the world in just about any field they want to go into. Commercially speaking, I am at the top of the English-as-a-Second-Language academic food chain because what I do directly impacts a student’s hireability and starting salary potential, and almost all of my students get jobs immediately.”

“Uh … ” She waited for him to sort through that. “If you’re that good, why are you being passed over for tenure?”

She curled her lip. “That’s a very good question. I publish. I have impeccable references. I’ve been recommended by some of the top scholars in my field, and yet, nothing.”

“But if what you’re doing works so well, why does he want you to change?”

This question made her very happy. “Because I make it fun. Apparently, good learning only happens when it’s not fun. Ching hates my methods and Sanz is inclined to agree because he doesn’t recognize the value of fun and he can’t be bothered to audit my classes.”

“Define fun.”

Victoria cast him a brilliant smile, now so very very pleased. “I screen American sitcoms and comedy movies. Well-written ones. Late-night talk shows. I break down all the jokes and explain the obvious, explain the visual cues and inflections, then explain the subtext. Comedy works because it’s packed with cultural baggage and nuance you can remember and apply elsewhere. It cuts learning time by a third at least, so you get more bang for your buck. You have to make it fun. If it’s fun, then it doesn’t seem like work.” Then she growled. “But at this rate, I’ll never make tenure.”

He said nothing for a bit and they walked in silence. “So you’re planning to stay in Spain?” he murmured. “You said you’ve been here six years. This isn’t a sabbatical appointment from a US uni?”

The question surprised her, but it shouldn’t have, she thought after a second. The Dragon wasn’t part of her life and she doubted Sebastian would tell him every detail of it. “I’ve been in Spain seven years,” she said matter-of-factly. “Almost eight. I’ve been in Sevilla six years and I can’t imagine leaving. I came here on my mission, came back after I finished grad school, and I have no intention of moving away.”

“Your mission? For your church? Like Sebastian?”

She nodded. “I fell in love with Spain, everything about it.”

“Even Covarrubias himself, apparently. Why did you go out of your way to touch the statue?”

She looked over her shoulder at the five-meter-high bronze statue of Dr. Rafael Covarrubias, the university’s namesake. “I don’t know,” she mused, then looked at him. “You know the story?”

He shook his head.

She smiled. “You know this school is a cooperative effort of private US, European, and Asian universities, though, right? With a focus on the sciences and global commerce and languages? Funded by global businesses and old family money from seventeen countries?”

“Yes.”

She threw her thumb over her shoulder. “It’s because of him. A Spanish count, teaching mathematics and navigation in Portugal in the mid-eighteenth century when Spain and Portugal were not cozy. But he was also an American ally in the Revolutionary War and he had spent years in Japan when Europeans didn’t get in or out of Japan alive. He was very much a Japanophile. He could speak and write in ten languages fluently. He wrote extensively on his educational and pedagogical philosophies, his view of world commerce, principles of democracy. Many of his philosophies are still relevant. He was also a feminist and wrote brilliant rebuttals of treatises that claimed women were inferior thinkers or leaders. He had at least one female protégée that we know of. Nobody knows her name or what happened to her, though.” She sighed. “That always makes me sad.”

“That you don’t know what happened to her?”

“In specific, yes, but the real problem is that most women get lost to history, no matter how remarkable they were. Obviously, I don’t know if his protégée was remarkable, but if she was, we will never know. And we don’t know if he had any more than that, but we must assume he did.”

“Protégée,” the Dragon drawled with amusement. “How quaint.”

Victoria laughed. “That hasn’t changed at all, has it?”

“He died in a bar fight over a woman, didn’t he?”

“Actually, he was killed at sea by a British pirate in the middle of a war. I highly doubt that involved a woman.”

She gasped when she felt herself falling against him, then felt the scrape of rough stone on her upper arm hard enough to graze her skin.

“You also don’t watch where you’re going,” he said dryly, helping her steady herself after he’d jerked her away from the stone water fountain so she wouldn’t plow right into it.

She sighed and looked at her scraped upper arm. “Guilty again. Look,” she said, putting her hand on her shoulder to show him a tiny freckle lost in the rest of her freckles. “That happened when I was nine. I have them all over me.”

The Dragon gave her a look she couldn’t decipher but she felt funny again and decided she did not like feeling funny when she couldn’t put a word to it, when she couldn’t connect it to what she’d felt for men in the past.

“I got hit by a car once,” she continued, not knowing why. “I was in the hospital for a while.”

“And how did you manage to be in front of a car?”

“I was chasing a ball.”

“And didn’t look both ways.”

“That’s it. Anyway, here we are. Do you want to come up to my office for a drink?”

And again he looked at her with an expression she couldn’t read. “What does that look mean?” she demanded.

“A drink,” he muttered, as if testing her.

She huffed. “Yes. I have a whole mini-fridge full of water and soda. Candy bars, too. It’s hot. I was offering some hospitality. I do remember to do that now and again. I’m not completely socially inept.”

Several sentiments crossed his face, but she didn’t know what any of them meant. “Okay,” he said warily. “Sure.”


5: LOCK THE DOORS & CALL ME YOURS

She’d meant what she’d said, Emilio thought, stunned as he stood in her office watching her dig a Coke out of the refrigerator. She tossed it to him, but he waited to open it until she’d opened her own. She gestured toward a wing chair in front of her desk as she went behind it to flop into her chair and put her feet up.

It was a damned good thing she was wearing trousers because he did not want to see any more of that luscious skin—or anything else—unless he was undressing her and finding every single one of her scars.

Because he was about to jump over that large desk and do that very thing.

He gestured to her feet. “You dance?”

She scoffed. “You have to ask? No. I have ballet shoes custom soled and dyed for everyday wear so I won’t break all my toes and they’ll last for more than three days. Look,” she said again, swiveling her chair so he only saw the top of her red head. Then she stretched her left leg high in the air so all the pale green cloth fell like a disrobing sculpture model. The shoe was ombré, from violet at the toe, smoothly lightening to lavender, until the heels were white. Violet ribbons wound tight over her foot and around her ankles. It did, indeed, look exactly like a ballerina’s shod foot, but his attention was on her long, perfectly curved alabaster leg, studded in freckles.

She twirled back around and dropped her foot, which landed on the edge of her desk with a hard thud. “I like the look,” she said airily, “and I’m vain.”

Mother of God. He was hard as a rock and he could barely breathe.

Do you want to come up to my office for a drink?

A drink. Literally. She couldn’t be that naïve, could she? Did she not understand that was global code for ‘Want to have sex?’

So he asked.

“Of course I do!” She harrumphed. “I teach profanity. And comedy—a lot of it profane so they don’t get caught in embarrassing linguistic traps. Why does everything have to be turned into a sexual innuendo? The question is a straightforward offer of hospitality, and then all of a sudden it turned into a proposition.”

He started when her office door banged open, but she didn’t move. Her body didn’t tense. She took a long pull of her soda while looking at the intruder out of the corner of her eye.

“Victoria!” a small Asian man barked from the doorway, one hand on the doorjamb and one on the doorknob, as if he were bracing for a strong wind. In perfect upper-class Spanish, he demanded, “Did you tell a student today that she was lazy?”

Emilio nearly choked.

“Of course I did,” she said calmly.

“Why?”

“She’s in a junior-level class but she doesn’t know English well enough to be there and she’s trying to fake it because she doesn’t want to make any effort to improve her English to the level of the class requirements.”

“You offended her!”

“That’s not my problem. It wasn’t an insult. It was a statement of fact.”

And at that moment, Emilio believed it.

“It is our problem now, because she is the daughter of a high-placed government official!”

Victoria looked completely bemused. “I don’t care,” she said. “Her father’s probably lazy too.”

Emilio started laughing. He couldn’t help it. It was utterly surreal, the conversation in the rector’s office, the conversation on the long walk to her office, and now the look on her face as if she didn’t understand why this was unacceptable.

“And who are you?” the man snarled, but Emilio was too far gone in his laughter to be able to answer. He waved toward Victoria.

“This is my colleague, Dr. Bautista.”

“Colleague? I know several Dr. Bautistas around here and he is not one of them.”

“He is a colleague because I say he is. We are discussing pedagogy.”

“Your pedagogy leaves much to be desired!”

The glass in the door rattled with the force of the slam.

Emilio was still laughing too hard to speak, so he bent over and hung his head between his knees to try to catch his breath. He started to cough.

“That’s what I deal with every day,” came Victoria’s voice from just above him. “Are you all right?”

He nodded, but took the tissue that suddenly dangled by his ear.

“That was my chair. Dr. Ching. He’s a petty little thing. Ha! Rhyme!”

This woman was going to be the death of Emilio, he just knew it. And there was only one way he’d rather go out than by laughing himself to death—and he wanted to do it with her.

Finally he calmed enough to straighten, only to see her perched on her knees on the edge of her desk, looking down at him with detached concern.

She couldn’t possibly know how badly he wanted her—and not because of her beauty or voice.

Emilio had never met a more delightful woman in his life.

The beautiful mystery bullfight aficionada: Gone.

The velvet-voiced American torch singer: Gone.

The ball-busting cousin of Sebastian’s: Gone.

Dr. Victoria LaMontagne: Right here in front of him in all her tactless, thoughtless, vain, and self-absorbed glory.

He finally looked up into her eyes, knowing every bit of his infatuation was showing on his face, but his gaze was caught on her silky shell where it gaped open at the neck. “Oh, God,” he groaned when he saw those creamy, freckled breasts cupped perfectly by her lacy pink bra and a silky chemise.

She looked down, too. “Did I spill something on myself?” She sat back on her heels and closely inspected her blouse. “I’m always spilling something,” she muttered, licking her finger, then rubbing at some spot. “I should not be allowed to wear white.”

Her curly red hair spilled over her shoulders and shielded her face from him. Her breasts bobbed with each impatient flick of a meticulously manicured nail, and her hips flared out from her waist in the most breathtaking way.

After everything Sebastian had told him, he could never have expected this.

She was so much more than he’d imagined.

I don’t care how beautiful a woman is, I wouldn’t stick around long enough to figure out a woman like her, either.

Unless he thought that woman worth the work, because this one would require the patience of a saint and the seduction skill of Don Juan to get her to notice Emilio in a way other than as a seducer of other men’s wives for the sole purpose of revenge, and—

“Who do you see when you look at me?” he asked abruptly.

Her head popped up, and her brow wrinkled. “Do you mean which persona?”

“Yes.”

She shrugged and her mouth twitched in thought. “I guess … Dr. Bautista. I mean, in my head, I’m thinking ‘Dragon,’ but that’s— I don’t know. A mental shortcut. An English one. If I thought of you as El Draque, in Spanish, I would have introduced you that way. But—” She gestured vaguely toward him, up and down. “You aren’t anything like that guy in the sand on Sunday and the sports section on Monday.”

Emilio smiled, pleased. So very, very pleased. “Sebastian said you didn’t think much of my bullfighting.”

She huffed. “I said you weren’t my favorite. I like Frederico better.”

Now he was not quite so pleased. That tactlessness was a double-edged sword. “Why?”

“Because he’s so much worse than you. He’s an underdog. I like underdogs. I’m interested in watching him get better.”

Emilio listened to this and sat astonished, and said the only thing that popped in his mind. “He’s only eighteen.”

“I’ve seen sixteen-year-olds better than he is,” Victoria muttered. “Not an ear to his name.”

“Two.”

“As well as none! He needs to go back to the novillada. But he’s adorable. And he kills clean.”

Emilio’s eyebrow rose.

“Some of the time.”

His lids lowered.

“Almost never. You, on the other hand, have it down to a science. Ha! Pun! I know exactly what to expect from you.”

“Thank you.”

She rolled her eyes.

“I think?”

“Knowing exactly what to expect wasn’t a compliment, Dr. Bautista.”

Note to self: Ask questions until she’s clarified everything she says.

“You’ve been smooth as a baby’s butt since you were gored three years ago.”

“You’re supposed to be smooth,” he said, suddenly irritated. “That’s the point.”

“Yes, but! Your posture isn’t quite straight enough when it should be and your shoulders aren’t back quite far enough and you don’t lean in quite close enough to the bull. When you go down on one knee, you’re right in his blind spot. When you make the kill, you go a little too far left and you have to reach for it. Your veronicas are a little too studied, and I haven’t seen you do a mariposa in, oh, years. Your faenas are a little too cautious, the time it takes you to turn the bull a little too long, and the horns are a little too far away from your legs.”

His mouth had dropped open with her first criticism.

“Every time I’ve seen you, you’ve left the ring without a drop of blood on you. Everybody else might like watching a torero do a perfect Viennese waltz with a bull and leave the ring pristine, as evidenced by your standings this season, but I don’t. I want to see a paso doble, but now if I want to see a good one, I have to watch Strictly Ballroom. Again.”

He stared at her, completely dumbfounded and speechless.

“And I’ll bet you thought I didn’t know my tauromaquia,” she purred wickedly.

She had just ground his ego into sand and spread it out over every bullring in Spain—exactly as Sebastian had described—and all he could do was start laughing. Again. “Would you do me a favor?” he asked between chuckles.

“Sure.”

“Consider me just Emilio.”

“Okay, Just Emilio,” she said agreeably. “I’ll tell Leo you’re my guest Saturday.”

He was going to die of joy.

Or bleed out from her precision goring.

But her brow wrinkled again. “You won’t mind that, will you?”

“Not at all,” he said smoothly, only barely able to hold back his smile. “I’ll look forward to it.”


6: FOR SENTIMENTAL REASONS

Emilio walked into the house and through the kitchen, where Consuela was cooking dinner. He slapped her ass as he went by and caught the roll she threw at his head. He shoved half of it in his mouth and said, “Marry me, Connie.”

The old woman growled, but Emilio went through the kitchen doors and out into the arcade surrounding a courtyard sparkling from the glint of sunlight on the water in the swimming pool, and shaded by the lush vegetation surrounding it. He stopped when he saw his mother in the pool, taking very slow laps across the shallow end. She was struggling, but she was trying, and Emilio’s heart felt a prick.

Another one.

His heart had holes in it from all the pinpricks it had taken in the last two years.

She was dying, and he could do nothing about it. A month ago, she had abruptly refused further chemotherapy and radiation and would not be swayed.

“Emilio!” she called, jerking him out of his reverie.

He smiled at her as if he hadn’t a care in the world, though she was pretty much his only real care. “Mamá,” he said. “You look better.”

It was rote, that you look better, but today, she really did.

She smiled as she backstroked her way across the pool, her eyes closed. “I know. It is amazing what a little fresh air and exercise will do, eh?”

Emilio considered that as he watched her. She was happy. Relaxed. “What is your pain level today?”

“Two,” she called lazily. “Three, perhaps. If I could sleep in this pool, I would.”

Hm. “Would you like a waterbed?”

“Yes!” she breathed. “Anything would be better than that hospital bed that quack has had me in for an eternity. I have cancer. I am not an invalid.”

Emilio looked upward and cupped his hands. “MAX!”

Soon enough, his youngest half-sibling leaned over the third-floor arcade railing. “What,” he snapped.

He snapped about everything. He was seventeen, just the age to be a pain in the ass, especially toward a half-brother old enough to be his father.

“Go buy a waterbed and have it delivered to Mamá’s room. A big one. Get rid of the hospital bed.”

“No problem,” he sneered, then looked at his wrist as if there were a watch there. “It’s three o’clock.”

Emilio shrugged. “Do it after siesta. Do it tomorrow. Just get it done.”

“But—”

“Why do you hate Mamá?”

Max howled and stormed back across the arcade, slamming his bedroom door behind him. His mother—stepmother, rather—who was now floating in the sun with her eyes closed, chuckled.

Emilio approached the pool, kicked his shoes off, and sat, dropping his feet and calves into the water as if he weren’t wearing good clothes, and watched her.

Dolores Ruiz was only eleven years older than Emilio, having moved in with his lonely father when Emilio was six to hide from her abusive husband. But Emilio’s father was just an unskilled laborer and his best chance at a decent living was in the army, so Dolores and Emilio had been alone quite a bit. She, being a barely literate country girl and grateful to have been given shelter, mothered Emilio as if he were her own, kept their home, and, Emilio supposed, pleased his father whenever he could come home.

Emilio, who’d been four when his mother died in childbirth, had been so lonely for a mother’s company, he had clung to Dolores as if she were his mother. Emilio was fifteen when his father came home to stay, and sixteen when his first half-sibling had come along. He’d been twenty and in college with the second, twenty-three with the third, and twenty-five with the last. Then his father had been called back out only to be killed in some skirmish in Catalonia.

Emilio had long since moved out of the house by that time, but because his father had never married Dolores, she had no widow’s benefits. So Emilio moved back in to take care of her and his siblings. She had been a light in his world for so long, he would do anything for her.

“How was your interview?” she asked lazily.

He grimaced. “It didn’t get that far this time.” Although the fact that he had totally forgotten about it was interesting.

“What is on your mind, mi hijo?”

Trust her to know something was different about him, but this, he wanted to keep to himself. “Disappointed.”

She’d buy that. He went through this every year, and every year he walked away empty-handed.

“You don’t sound disappointed.”

Maybe she wouldn’t buy that. His brow wrinkled. “Somebody said something to me today that made me think.” A lot of things, actually.

“Oh?”

“‘Why do you base your goals on decisions somebody else has to make?’”

She said nothing. The water lapped the sides of the pool. The trees rustled with the breeze. There were faint household sounds. Max’s blaring stereo was mercifully muted. Pilar and Cristina weren’t home from their classes at the University of Sevilla yet, and Cesar, his twenty-six-year-old brother, was at work.

“That,” Dolores finally said, “is a very good question.”

Yes, it was. Parts of the rest of the conversation made him wince, though. “Did the doctor come over today?”

“No,” she said cheerfully. “He can do nothing since I will not go back on chemo or radiation, eh? I do not like him anyway.”

Emilio was torn about this decision. On the one hand, she was back to the happy and vivacious mother he’d known for most of his life. She felt good, she looked better than she had in years, and her pain level was down, managed with some Tylenol every few hours and a joint before bed. On the other hand, she was dying, and fifty-three was way too young. Chemo and radiation would extend her life by several years, but she didn’t want to live in such pain and misery, and after watching her deteriorate with the “cure,” he couldn’t say he blamed her for that. She would rather find a way to get an overdose of morphine than live that way.

She also wasn’t interested in holistic medicines or anything that would require her to work to stay alive. Yes, she was only fifty-three, but she looked seventy. She’d had a hard life, but now, thanks to Emilio’s star status, it was a good life, quiet and relaxing, and she wanted to enjoy it. She couldn’t do that in a hospital bed puking from the chemo or nearly comatose from the radiation.

She ate what she wanted, drank what she wanted, smoked what she wanted, and asked Emilio for anything else she wanted—if she thought of it. After she had once asked his father for shelter, she’d very rarely asked anybody for anything. Dolores gave and gave some more until she’d had nothing left to give because the cancer took.

So despite his misgivings, his grief, his looming sense of loss, Emilio allowed it and didn’t attempt to subvert her wishes in any way. He hadn’t even quietly instructed Consuela to prepare her a special diet. What was the point?

Emilio’s watch beeped, and he pulled his feet out of the water. “I have a meeting with my trainer.” At which time he would present Victoria’s complaints about his waltzing. “I should be home by supper.”

“Emilio,” Dolores said sweetly. It was the way she said everything.

“Mamá?”

“Who asked you this interesting question?”

He hesitated. “A professor at Covarrubias. Teaches American English and culture in the international business department.”

“What is her name?”

Trust her to pick out the detail he hadn’t given her. “Victoria LaMontagne,” he said in resignation.

She clucked her tongue. “You must watch for those American girls. They have no manners.”

Emilio barked a laugh. “This one has less than none.”

“But she made you think and she made you smile. I know I will be very happy with her.”


7: TWELVE O’CLOCKTAILS

Victoria sat on her couch that night with her feet up on the coffee table and a bowl of stew in her hand, while she watched entertainment news. Then she’d have a telenovela marathon while she graded exams.

Next came the usual corrida segment, where everything was about Toreros Behaving Badly, and nothing was about the corrida de toros itself. She watched it religiously, but now she had a different perspective.

“El Draque was today spotted heading into prestigious Covarrubias University. Our reporters caught him as he came out an hour later.”

Victoria rolled her eyes at the lame questions the paparazzi lobbed at him, some of which were questions pertaining to his colleagues, which he answered in his carelessly precise and quite vicious fashion. And the rest were questions pertaining to rumors of his latest lover, American wild child heiress Yvette Mallery. But he scowled at the reporters and the cameras, said “No comment” a lot, and ducked into his car, which squealed away from the pack. Her eyebrows lowered and she glared at the TV, which had shown a poor imitation of the man she’d met today.

El Draque having a lover was de rigueur, as was the press’s dissection of each and every one of his women. But Yvette was twenty-four, a regular at Leo’s, escaping from her cold and strict socialite mother. In Victoria’s opinion, Yvette was immature for her age, lonely, ill-equipped for the real world, and looking for love in all the wrong places. It manifested in her self-destructive behavior.

Trust a torero to take advantage of her.

The same could not be said for Señora Sanz. She was as opportunistic as El Draque and she was old enough to know the score going in. She’d married for money and likely what Dr. Sanz objected to was that he’d been cuckolded by El Draque. That would have made news and embarrassed him. Society was supposed to keep its affairs discreet.

Victoria had never paid attention to such things because that was what toreros did. She was not personally invested in any torero other than Frederico, because he was such a cute little boy trying to be a grownup torero and he amused her. She’d stopped paying attention to El Draque years ago.

But today she was paying attention and it bugged her. A lot.

Lydia came breezing in the door with takeout, tossed out a “hi,” and headed to the kitchen to eat. She had been ravenous the last month or so, something she had never been in college, but she wasn’t gaining weight. She was losing it, in fact.

Victoria put her feet down and arose to take her bowl into the kitchen. “Are you sick?” she asked while Lydia inhaled two stuffed mushrooms.

“No,” Lydia grunted as she soaked a piece of bread in the seasoned olive oil the mushrooms had come in. “I haven’t eaten today.”

“You ate breakfast,” Victoria reminded her. “A big one, too.”

“You’re awfully observant all of a sudden,” Lydia groused.

“I’m always observant. I just don’t care.”

“Oh, right. Please resume not caring about my eating habits.”

“No, seriously, I want to know. Why are you eating like there’s no tomorrow? There’s something wrong with you.”

Lydia slammed her hand down on the table. “There is nothing wrong with me! Mind your own business!”

“And bitchy, too.”

“I’m pregnant.”

Victoria’s bottom lip dropped open. “Oh.”

“Yes, I know what you’re thinking,” she said snidely. “I’m a slut. A whore. Having a baby out of wedlock, with a guy I knew a whole week. Yes, I’m a sinner.”

“Um … no,” Victoria said absently, worrying her bottom lip with her fingertips because Lydia knew very good and well Victoria didn’t apply such labels. So now she was confused. “I don’t, um, see you—”

“As a slut?” she snapped.

“No,” Victoria answered, and tried again. “You don’t enjoy sex, so I don’t understand why you keep doing it.”

Lydia’s fork clattered on her plate where she dropped it, and she gaped at Victoria. “Why in God’s name would you think I don’t enjoy sex?”

“You didn’t in college.”

That brought her up short. “You didn’t seem to notice in college.”

“I noticed. I just didn’t say anything. You were always crying when you came home. What was I supposed to think? I wouldn’t keep doing stuff that made me cry.”

Lydia closed her eyes and her fist at the same time. Her chest was heaving and Victoria didn’t know if she was trying to control her temper or her tears or what. Victoria wasn’t good with these situations, which was why she’d never said anything in the five years she and Lydia had been roommates.

“I love him,” she whispered, then gulped. “But I shouldn’t. I have no basis for love. Or … what I think it means. We had a week together. On the run in the back alleys of Manhattan. Hunted. Hunting. It was just stress. Battlefield comfort. He said he loved me, but a guy like that—he doesn’t love. He uses and leaves. Not even Sebastian can tell me he wouldn’t get restless after a while and go looking elsewhere. Sebastian knows Jack too well.”

Emilio Bautista.

Victoria shook her head. “Soooo what are you going to do about the baby?”

“I don’t know,” she whispered. “I just don’t know.”

Victoria didn’t know what to say to that, and she had nothing to offer, so she watched and waited.

Lydia took a deep breath. “I came home crying in college because I’d convinced myself the guy loved me, but he didn’t. Even if it was good, it got spoiled once I faced facts. I would go begging for love, but got laughed at. I was nothing. So I stopped doing that. But then I did. Again. With Jack. After I’d had so many years of being careful to avoid situations like that—and being happy not having all that drama! And now I’m sitting here telling you I love him when it’s the same as it’s always been. At least I didn’t tell him I loved him.”

“But … you had relationships.”

“Not good ones. I had no role models. I grew up in a tenement with an ancient Cuban showgirl stuck in her pre-Castro glory days and a drag queen, playing piano in a bathhouse where nobody loves each other and ‘relationship’ is a dirty word.” Oh, that was a story, all right, and Victoria never got tired of hearing it. “I have no idea how to have a relationship with a man.”

“But I’ve never gone out on more than two or three dates with anybody.”

“You have no tact, you can’t be bothered to learn some social niceties, and you don’t listen to what your dates say. Or you don’t remember.”

“I listen!” Victoria protested. “And I remember. I just don’t care.”

Lydia barked a harsh laugh. “That’s so much better! Your looks get you the date. Your mouth gets you stranded on the roadside. If you get a second or third date it’s because the guy’s trying to fix your brain so he can be the one to thaw your ice vagina.”

Victoria nodded her agreement.

“I wish I had your problem,” Lydia muttered resentfully, then went back to her tapas.

“Which problem?”

“The one where you’re never horny. Ice vagina.”

“It’s not a problem,” Victoria said.

“Okay, then I wish I had your blessing. Or gift. Or whatever you people call it. That way, my brain wouldn’t keep letting my clit decide what love is because my brain doesn’t know and my clit has terrible judgment.”

Victoria looked down at the table and tried to cut through the sudden jumble of her thoughts. Something didn’t feel right.

“What?”

Victoria looked up at her cute friend, with a mop of old-gold curls and blue-gray-purple eyes. She was no stunner, but she did a thing with her eyes that made men do whatever she wanted them to—except love her.

“What what?”

“Something’s bothering you.”

Yes, something was, but she didn’t know what. “What’s it like,” she blurted, “when a man touches you and then all of a sudden, you’re in bed together?”

Lydia sighed. “You’ve only asked me that a hundred thousand times. I. Don’t. Know. If you’re attracted to him, it’s a tingly feeling. I guess. Sometimes, it hits you right between your legs. But that’s never happened to you and at this point, it’d take someone pretty spectacular to make it happen for you.”

Victoria huffed. “I want to know what the girl is feeling. Purple prose and falling off cliffs and going over edges and stupid metaphors like that are not helpful.”

“That’s because it’s totally indescribable.” She paused. “Get a Penthouse Letters.”

“Those don’t help. They’re all from the guy’s point of view.”

“Then go rent a video.”

“My sister-in-law gave me some instructional videos, but without a partner, it’s pointless.”

“You know what? Go get a book and learn how to masturbate.”

“I tried that. I was itchy and irritated for a week.”

“Then you weren’t doing it right.”

“I followed the instructions!”

“Hrmph.”

And that was the end of the conversation because Lydia dug into her food again, and Victoria knew her well enough to know she was beyond irritated. Victoria might have pressed her anyway, but it was a waste of time to badger her when she was that irritated.

She arose and started toward the bedroom.

“Wait,” Lydia said around a mouthful of … something. Victoria stopped and looked over her shoulder. “Did you meet a guy? Because you only ask this when you meet a guy who can keep up with you and you’re so thrilled you don’t pay attention to anything else.”

Victoria shrugged. “Yeah, I did. But he’s about as close to marriage material as Jack. All he wants is to get me into bed.”

Lydia looked at her suspiciously. “He let you know that up front?”

“He didn’t come out and say it, but he wasn’t trying to hide what he wanted.”

Lydia’s eyebrows rose. “And you didn’t tell him to go pound sand?”

Victoria pursed her lips in thought. “Not for that. I did rip him up one side and down the other for something else, though, and he thought it was funny.”

“Did he know you were serious?”

Victoria nodded. “He was laughing at himself.”

Lydia said nothing for a few seconds as she turned that over. “Huh. That’s different. So he’s intelligent and interesting and can laugh at himself. Which means you’ll keep him around to entertain you until you have to pull out the baseball bat.”

Victoria nodded sadly. “Yeah. As usual.”

“What’s his name?”

“Emilio.” She paused. “Bautista.”

Lydia choked. “That Emilio Bautista?”

Victoria grimaced. “That one.”

Oh my God! You don’t do anything halfway, do you?”

“It’s a Dunham family trait,” she muttered.

She released a low whistle. “You might want to watch out for that one, Vic. Even I can see there’s something about him that’s—”

“Irresistible?”

Lydia’s eyebrows shot into her hairline. “Uh … I was going to say charismatic, but that makes me think if anybody could thaw your ice vagina, it might actually be him.”

Victoria sniffed. “No man I find interesting who is also willing to think about marriage can do it. That’s the problem. And Emilio Bautista is about as far from marriage as he is the moon.”

Lydia pursed her mouth in commiseration. “Some things never change. You and I haven’t lived together for seven years and we’re still two sides of the same coin.”

“Yeah. But you know what? Somewhere in there, I gave up and I’m happy with talking to interesting men. I’m thirty-two. I’m a virgin. If you have to die a virgin, then an ice vagina is a very handy thing to have.”

“Ain’t that the truth.”


8: CRUSH ME SOME ICE

Emilio was shocked at the treatment he got Saturday night once he’d arrived at Leo’s. The bouncer wasn’t any more gracious than he had been the last time, and Leo’s gregarious greeting was forced, but he was seated one terrace-step above the dance floor tables, just off the middle aisle, where he’d be able to see Victoria well, but still remain somewhat inconspicuous.

“How’d you manage this?” Sebastian muttered as he sank into the club chair opposite Emilio.

“Magic,” Emilio whispered, eyes wide and fingers waving.

“Asshole. Cut the jazz hands and glitter fingers.”

Emilio chuckled and sipped at his Scotch. Soon enough, their table was filled with things Emilio hadn’t had since he left Texas years ago: fried chicken, potato salad, cole slaw, baked beans, Texas sheet cake, apple pie—and an ice-cold pitcher of milk.

He sighed happily. “I will have Connie expand the menu. Your mother cooks like this, no?”

Sebastian nodded. “I’ll get you the recipes.”

The jazz band played and the diners dined and a few couples danced.

“Speaking of mothers, how’s yours?” Sebastian asked around a mouthful of food.

“Better,” Emilio said. He looked at Sebastian. “She spends hours in the swimming pool now. Smokes a joint.”

“Good way to work up an appetite.”

“She is also spending time catching up with my siblings, things she missed when she was dazed by the chemotherapy. Knitting. She is doing all the things she could not do when she was at the hospital four days a week. I bought her a waterbed. She has slept through the night every night since she has had it. She wakes up as if nothing is wrong.”

Sebastian grunted. “Maybe she does know better than the doctors.”

“What she knows is that she is at peace, and she wants to enjoy her last days.”

“‘Last days’ may be an illusion.”

“From your lips to God’s ears.”

“Dragon!” trilled a female voice from across the room. Emilio groaned. The redhead—she was no Victoria—pulled a chair from another table and plopped herself down next to him. She leaned against him and petted his arm. “I haven’t seen you in three weeks,” she pouted, stroking up and over his shoulder.

“I was invited to abstain from attendance,” he said matter-of-factly, ignoring her proximity and continuing to eat.

She began threading her fingers through his hair, caressing his ear with a finger. Her other hand was fondling his shirt studs.

“But you’re here now, so can I expect another night like the last one?”

“No.”

Her hands stilled, and her face was carefully blank. “Oh,” she said carefully. “I … thought … ”

“We discussed this. No more.”

She paused. “You were serious?”

“Yes, Yvette, I was serious.”

She looked around, her face a little flushed. “But—”

He sliced the air with his hand. “No more,” he repeated, then pointed at her sternly. “I told you why as kindly as possible and in private so that I would not embarrass you. You may embarrass yourself all you wish, but you will not embarrass me, particularly when I am Velvet’s guest.”

She gasped.

Sebastian groaned.

Emilio looked pointedly down at Yvette’s hands, which were still upon his person.

She stood with a snarl and slapped him. Then she picked up his Scotch and threw it in his face.

Sebastian was snapping his fingers for the bouncers and maître d’ before Emilio could reach for a napkin. Yvette was dragged out kicking and screaming, and the maître d’ whispered that Emilio could refresh himself and change into a complementary tux in one of the hotel bedrooms upstairs.

He almost snorted. Nobody booked rooms at Leo’s for a good night’s sleep.

“Thank you,” Emilio said graciously, and followed the waiter out. The room was generically lovely. Generically elegant. Generically masculine. The bed was a generically ornate four-poster big enough for four people at once. He was quite sure it had held more than that.

But he stopped and looked at it speculatively. The counterpane was navy. The pillows and shams were white but glittering ice blue in the light. He walked over to it and ran his hand gently over the silk, then lifted the duvet to see white sheets in the finest cotton.

I should not be allowed to wear white.

What he wouldn’t give to dress Victoria in white Egyptian cotton and navy silk.

Emilio was a patient man, but he’d need more than he had to seduce a woman who thought a man blatantly staring down her blouse at her breasts was concerned about a soup stain. And there was still the matter of Señora Sanz. His lip curled.

Sebastian was right, he thought as he took off his coat, tie, and shirt to clean his face and chest in the bathroom sink. He came back into the room to find a tux waiting for him on the bed. There were very few experienced men in the world who’d put up with her for long if all they wanted was sex. And Mormon boys— Definitely not.

He remembered Sebastian when he’d first abandoned his mission, twenty years old, a virgin, ignorant as the day he was born and scared of his dick’s shadow. No, a boy like the one Sebastian had been then—regardless of religion—would give up before he started.

He stood in front of the mirror and meticulously tied his fresh bow tie, wondering exactly why he liked Victoria, especially after she’d thoroughly shredded him in several ways. For reasons that had nothing to do with her beauty, he wanted to be around for the next idiotic, wonderful, straightforward, utterly tactless thing that came out of her mouth, even if he was on the receiving end of it. However, to do that and keep his sanity, he would have to customize his expectations of people’s behavior to her. That might take a while.

Victoria’s set was still thirty minutes from beginning when he returned to his table. He had new food, hot, on a table that had been cleaned and reset.

“I do love this place,” he murmured.

“How,” Sebastian asked tightly, “did you end up on her guest list?”

“Did she not tell you?” Emilio purred with a raised eyebrow, ecstatic about that.

“Never mentioned it. Once. In the last three weeks.”

“You have been bouncing around London, Brussels, and The Hague for the last three weeks.”

“Touché.”

Emilio debated telling him something outrageous, but went with the truth, boring as it was. The boring truth was totally believable. No, probable.

“Coincidence. Do you remember I told you I had an interview scheduled at Covarrubias? We ran into each other at the rector’s office. She was leaving. I was coming in. Crash.”

“Oh,” Sebastian said after a second or two. “And she didn’t take your head off?”

“No. She was actually quite gracious.”

Sebastian snorted. “Now I know you’re lying.”

Emilio sighed. “Gracious for her. We talked for about an hour. It did not take long for me to grasp how different she is. She mentioned that my technique was perfect.”

“I do not believe for a minute she said that.”

“I was flattered until she clarified that in my perfection, I was boring her and she would rather watch a campy dance movie for the sixteenth time than watch me put my cowardice on display. Frederico is her favorite because he is currently the torero most likely to be fatally gored this season.”

Sebastian started laughing.

“Furthermore, she somehow managed to deduce that the university’s objection to me was a bit more complicated than the cape.”

“Don’t tell me you told her.”

Emilio sighed and rolled his eyes up to the ceiling. Sebastian laughed even harder. “She said, ‘Go you! Old money loves to go slumming with new money.’ Of course, she said it in Spanish, so it loses something in the translation, but I doubt the finer points escaped her. I cannot say you exaggerated her disposition.”

Sebastian could barely breathe by this time, but Emilio ate calmly until Sebastian could speak again. “And … yet you’re here. After that. Men have dumped her for less than that.”

“I find her fascinating, hilarious, and utterly delightful,” Emilio said bluntly.

More laughter. “Um … well … You may get along with Étienne just fine, then. He’s just like her. Except he’s married with kids.”

Emilio grunted. “His wife must be very patient.”

“No, actually, she’s manic-depressive, but she’s got a head for schedules. She manages his life and thinks it’s funny. He manages her mood swings and considers it a privilege to do so.”

“That is a match made in psychiatric heaven.”

“Actually, yes it is.”

Emilio pursed his lips and looked at Sebastian slowly. “There must truly be someone for everyone, eh?”

“Don’t try to convince me you’d stand by her forever and ever, amen. I told you she only dates for marriage.”

He shrugged. “I am not averse to marriage. I am averse to marriage with any woman I have ever fucked, including Miss Mallery, who wants much more than sex.”

“She’s an heiress. What else could she possibly want?”

“Love.”

Sebastian started.

Emilio nodded. “She is doing it badly, though, which I told her. In fact, I ended our liaison by giving her the same lecture I give my sisters. I also told her she was too young for me and that I would not have sex with her again.”

“She obviously didn’t believe you.”

“And as much as I pity her, that is none of my concern. I gave her good advice, to which she will listen or not. Dismissing her that way was a kindness.”

“Hm. You’re not as much of an asshole as you used to be.”

“My sisters started dating.”

“WELCOME TO LEO’S!”

Emilio folded his napkin and slunk down in his club chair to relax and watch Dr. Victoria LaMontagne flex and stretch her vocal cords. He was eager to find out how different it would be to hear her tonight with his entire perspective on Velvet—and his mystery woman—so drastically changed.

She came strutting out with the assurance of a woman who knew she was the most beautiful one in the room—any room. Any time. There was a soft gasp that ran through the audience, and Emilio was not unaffected.

Her evening gown was white but dripping with long iridescent beads that glinted ice blue. Emilio glanced at Sebastian. “You have the same color eyes.”

“A lot of us do,” Sebastian replied.

When he turned his attention back to the stage, she was looking at him with a smile that reached down and grabbed his— It was then he saw she’d lifted her skirt only enough to show him one of her ballet-slipper-clad feet—lightly en pointe. Navy. He laughed.

She winked at him, then she dropped her hem and walked away to begin her opening patter.

“Emilio,” Sebastian said thoughtfully, “I’m warning you—”

“Yes, yes. She is vicious. So you’ve said, but it does not apply to me.”

“Oh, because you spent an hour with her?”

“It was all I needed to get on her guest list and a public reference to our conversation, no? In spite of my faux pas regarding Sanz’s wife.”

“I grew up with her. I know what I’m talking about. That, what she just did? So far as I know, that’s more attention than she paid to the last dozen men she went out with combined.”

“If your goal is to frighten me, you are failing.”

“I’m telling you that if you get in too deep with her, she will reach into your chest, take your heart out, and eat it.”

Emilio grinned. “I am in love with her already.”

Sebastian waved a hand in defeat and relaxed into his chair. “All right. You know better than I do. Got it. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

•  •  •
If he weren’t such a cynic, Emilio thought as he almost lay in his chair, lulled into drifting in and out of consciousness, he’d swear he was in love with her.

It wasn’t an insult. It was a statement of fact.

But now that he knew a little bit of the real woman, he could hear it in her singing, how very shallow it was. No pain. No heartbreak. No depth.

Emilio had never suffered at the hands of a woman or a failed relationship, but his mother was dying, and he figured that gave him a better handle on pain than she had.

She also had no handle on sex. No knowledge. She didn’t understand the words to half the lyrics she sang. It was her skill that hid it from her audience. She started in on “Peel Me a Grape”—

Hop when I holler, skip when I snap. When I say, ‘do it,’ jump to it …

—which amused Emilio to no end because the song reflected the lovely Dr. LaMontagne perfectly. But she wasn’t aware enough of the sexual nuance to put her ego behind it and pile on the subtext. And because it was lighthearted, the audience would rather dance than inspect her music for what wasn’t there.

It was when she got to “Popsicle Toes”—

I’d like to feel your warm Brazil and touch your Panama …

—that he sighed, opened his eyes, and sat up.

“What’s wrong with you?” Sebastian groused.

“She is not there in the music,” he muttered as he picked over his plate for leftover morsels.

Sebastian said nothing for a few seconds. “You can hear that?”

“I have spoken with her, remember.”

“Does this ruin your whole Velvet experience?”

“Yes,” Emilio said, “but it does not matter, because I have spoken with her, remember. I doubt she would mind having a male friend who finds her charming, now, would she?”

Sebastian slid him a suspicious glance. “Friends.”

Emilio tilted his head and gave Sebastian a cocky grin. “‘Friends’ is the magic word for women like her.”

The set wound down and Victoria thanked the guests, reminding them she had two more sets after the break. But instead of disappearing backstage, she went to the edge of the stage. “Emilio!” she hissed, gesturing for him to come help her down.

“I do not believe what I am seeing,” Sebastian breathed as Emilio immediately arose and crossed the smallish dance floor. He reached up to grasp her around her perfectly nipped waist to pick her up and put her gently on her feet in front of him.

With any other woman, Emilio would have let her slide down his front right before he kissed her. But even if he had gone in for a kiss, he would’ve gotten his nose bashed when she immediately bent over to shake out her skirt.

She straightened just as fast and gave him that blinding smile. “Thank you!” she said in Spanish, although one of Leo’s house rules was English-only. “I’m so glad you came.”

He was about to come right then and there, but he only said, “Thank you for inviting me.”

“Well?” she said expectantly.

Emilio considered her for a second or two, debating what to say. Finally, he dove headfirst into his first mistake. “You need practice.”

Her mouth dropped open.

“You’re a lyric mezzo-soprano,” he continued, “but you’re using your head voice to hit the high notes instead of pulling from your diaphragm. Your vibrato is faint, but I can’t tell if you don’t have one and you’re trying to force it, or if you’re lazy.”

“Lazy,” she said amiably enough. “Nobody cares.”

That was not the response he’d expected. Encouraged, he forged on. “If that were your only problem, you’d be fine. But it’s not.”

“Well, what’s my worst problem?” she demanded.

“You’re not feeling it,” he said flatly.

Her expression collapsed into confusion. “Not feeling what?”

“You don’t have a clue what you’re singing. You have no depth. You sound studio-perfect, which makes me suspect you’re lip syncing. There’s nothing of your personality in your inflections or interpretation. No passion. In short, you’re very … smooth. Like a … Viennese waltz.”

She snickered, but plopped her hand on her hip, crooked a finger over her top lip, and stared at the floor. “Hm. That is a problem. I need to figure out how to fix that.”

He couldn’t have begged for a better opening.

“I know exactly how you can fix it,” Emilio said warmly, edging closer to her.

She lifted her head and smiled at him in curiosity, her long false eyelashes fluttering at him just above those ice blue eyes. “How?”

“Make love with a man who knows what he’s doing.”

Her smile faded and she heaved a great sigh. “Not possible. I’m frigid.”

“Uh huh,” Emilio drawled, trying not to burst out laughing.

Again the smile. “Oh, I’m sure you’d be able to tell, if anybody would.”

He shifted just a little bit toward her again. “Yes, I would,” he purred, getting closer until her perfect breasts were brushing his lapels because she didn’t budge.

Her smile never faltered, she didn’t blush, and her eyes never strayed. “I’ll get a voice teacher.”

“You’re not going to be able to put the passion in it by yourself, voice coach or not. The only solution to your problem is experience. You sound innocent. And in a place like this, the juxtaposition is a little too surreal.” She blinked. He leaned in and purred, “And I’ll bet you thought I didn’t know anything about vocal performance.”

She started to laugh, her smile broad, a dimple appearing in her cheek.

Thoroughly elated by her unexpected reaction, he whispered, “Spiked in the neck with your own banderilla, eh, Dr. LaMontagne? How precious.”

She clapped her hands over her mouth and nose to muffle her squeal of delighted laughter, her body quaking, her eyes sparkling above her meticulous manicure.

“Velvet!”

It was a harsh whisper, coming from behind the curtain. She turned away from Emilio, and he leaned left a little to blatantly inspect the perfection of her freckled back, exposed from nape to waist. He could barely keep himself from caressing the entire length. Then her beads clinked softly when she swirled back to him. “I have to go,” she said breathlessly. “Leo’s mad at me now.”

Emilio was quite sure Leo was mad at her. “Why?” he asked anyway to keep her for a few seconds longer.

“Oh, because I invited you, and I’m standing here talking to you.”

“Better not keep him waiting then. Don’t want to get you fired.”

She swirled away from him again, but cast a broad grin over her shoulder as she scurried off the dance floor. He stepped toward his seat, only to see half the guests staring at him as if he’d grown two heads. Sebastian was slouched in his chair, his face in his palm, shaking his head laboriously.

Emilio just smirked and sauntered to his place. He shifted his trouser legs up with an arrogant flick, shot his cuffs out, sank slowly into the leather chair, propped one ankle on his knee, and signaled for a cigar. It was as he was blowing smoke rings toward the ceiling, he finally spoke.

“So. Taight. What were you saying about my broken heart?”


9: THE GOOD OF ALL MY SCHEMING

Victoria saw Emilio waiting for her at the back entrance when her night was over and she’d changed into a simple pair of floaty navy shorts and equally floaty white blouse. She didn’t bother to hide her smile. “Hola!”

“Hola,” he said low, offering her his arm.

She took it, ecstatic that her rudeness hadn’t made yet another intelligent and oh, so very clever and interesting man walk away without a backward glance. Then again, he was so clever, he’d turned her scathing critique of his bullfighting back on her in a way that made her even happier.

“My driver’s waiting,” he murmured. “May I give you a ride home?”

“Leo’s driver takes me home.”

“Ah, I see. I thought I would offer.”

“You know what? I’ll tell him to go away.”

“All right.”

Victoria scurried back up the hallway, into the employee entrance to find—

“Velvet!” someone shouted. “We got trouble!”

She turned to find the voice. “What kind?” she yelled back.

“Paparazzi, front and back. Leo is pissed.”

“Crud,” Victoria muttered, then turned and sprinted out to the hall and down toward Emilio. “Don’t open that door!” she cried when he put his hand on the handle. “Paparazzi.”

Emilio let it go immediately, but instead of panicking, he strolled toward her and simply said, “Phone?”

She pointed down a well-disguised hall opposite the employee’s door, and she stood waiting for him, her hands propped on her hips and her toe tapping the floor impatiently. When he returned, he was still calm and inspecting his cuffs. “We’ll go out the side door.”

“There is no side door.”

He smiled slowly at her and there was that … funny … thing again. Fluttery. A tickle. She thought she should probably get used to that because she didn’t think it was going away any time soon. “Yes, there is,” he said smoothly and offered his arm again. “I,” he said conspiratorially as he led her through a few hallways she’d never been interested enough to explore, “get the blueprints of every establishment I frequent or plan to frequent, and find all possible exits.”

Victoria, attempting to calm her racing heart from being almost caught and having her privacy invaded, finally said, “I guess you’d know this stuff, too.”

“Yes,” he purred. “I know a lot of things.”

“For your information, I do catch all the sexual things you throw at me.”

“I doubt that,” he retorted.

“In case you haven’t noticed, I’m beautiful. I get it all the time.”

She waited with bated breath to find out what he’d say to that, and he merely slid her a glance and a smirk. “You haven’t gotten it the way I’m going to give it to you.”

She groaned and jerked away from him. “Emilio! I didn’t invite you here for that. I was hoping we could be friends.”

“Oh? I was under the impression you were hoping I’d fall weeping at your feet to praise your performance. Or drop to my knees in front of you to spout poetry to your beauty.”

Victoria clucked. “Well, of course I did!”

His eyes narrowed and he leaned toward her a little. “Because that’s what friends do,” he whispered.

He had a point. But still. “Hrmph.”

He started to laugh, and turned away to continue the trek without her. “Come, Professor,” he called from an increasing distance away from her. “Let’s end the evening, eh? My corrida’s in Zaragoza tomorrow and I assume you have church.”

She huffed and scurried after him. “Why are you being so difficult?” she demanded when she caught up to him.

“I’m not the difficult one,” he said smoothly as he opened a door to their right, which led to a staircase. He gestured for her to go down.

She did, but huffed all the way down. He was difficult. And he did think she was beautiful. He had to. Everybody did.

“Turn right.”

After a few turns, eventually, they emerged onto a narrow cobbled foot street on the opposite side of the block, from a door in a façade that looked like every other house on this street.

“Oh,” she said, surprised. It was quiet, and softly lit by lanterns hanging off the buildings. That was normal for Sevilla. What wasn’t normal was a man in a tux traversing it at three o’clock in the morning with his date. “You know why I know tauromaquia. How do you know vocal performance?”

He shrugged. “Standard humanities class my freshman year in college. I fell in love during the opera section. I used to go quite often, but I haven’t had much time in the last few years.”

“Do you sing?”

He laughed. “Not a note. I am an aficionado.”

“Musicals too?”

He nodded. “I have a large and eclectic music collection, and,” he said, sliding a glance at her, “I am particularly drawn to mezzo-sopranos.”

She tsk’d. “How original.”

He gave her a warm smile. “I wanted to hear you sing live because you’re a mezzo-soprano.”

She smiled at him, pleased and even more fluttery. “My mother wanted me to study opera.”

“Oh? Why didn’t you?”

“Too much effort for something I had no intention of pursuing as a career. Jazz is the only thing I want to sing. For one thing, it’s more forgiving and Frederica von Stade I am not. For another, I find nightclubs like Leo’s to be terribly romantic.”

He made note of that. “What is it about Leo’s specifically?”

“The dress code.” She wasn’t sure why she told him that, since it was something she’d always kept to herself, so she didn’t elaborate. She shrugged. “I don’t like the cigarette smoke, though. It might be a hobby, but I don’t want my voice wrecked. Leo has fans to keep it away from me and nobody’s allowed to smoke backstage anyway.”

“Ah. Did you forget your dress?” he asked as they continued to stroll along. He liked to stroll, apparently, when she would have preferred to get where they were going.

“Oh, it’s not mine,” she answered. “Leo’s dresses me and the other singers. The clothes belong to the club.”

He stopped and took her hands, spreading them wide to inspect her. “There are freckles on your knees,” he observed.

“Yes, and they are very cute.”

His eyebrow rose, but he didn’t answer. She bent over at the waist to see what else he was observing. He nudged the flat end of her ballet shoe with the toe of his dress shoe. “You don’t dance at all?” he murmured.

She paused. “I … tried. Took lessons, I mean. Flamenco. I wasn’t very good.”

“How long were you taking lessons?”

“Three years.”

“And … ”

She grimaced. “I was still in the beginner class when I was encouraged to consider different artistic pursuits.”

He burst out laughing, and pulled her into his arms for a giant hug. She sighed happily, particularly when he laid his big warm hand on the small of her bare back, where her blouse dipped, and stroked upward. She shivered and closed her eyes, propping her chin on his shoulder and pulling him closer.

“Do that again,” she breathed.

“No.”

Her eyes popped open and she pushed him away. “Why not?” she demanded.

“Because you don’t understand why I’m doing it.”

“Yes I do, but your arousal is not my problem. Do it again.”

“Dear God,” he groaned and rubbed his forehead. “You’re going to kill me.” She opened her mouth to protest, but he held up a hand and shook his head. “Not another word.”

She snapped her mouth shut, uncertain of his mood. In only a minute or two of walking, they emerged onto a quiet residential street where a large black sedan awaited them. He opened the door for her, then slid in after her. “Tell him your address,” Emilio murmured absently, and she obeyed while he patted his pockets down.

“That’s quite far away,” he remarked around the cigar he was lighting. “Not in a very good neighborhood, either.”

“It’s cute,” she said. “And cheap. I am possibly the most frugal woman you’ve ever met.”

“That would explain the shade seats every Sunday for six months out of every year,” he returned dryly. “And the wardrobe. And the manicure. And the custom shoes.”

She sniffed. “Okay. Possibly not the most.”

Somehow, and Victoria wasn’t quite sure how it happened, she arrived home curled up next to Emilio, half asleep with her head on his shoulder, and his arm around her. He had a glass of Scotch in his other hand and a cigar between two fingers, but cigars didn’t bother her nearly as much as cigarettes. At this moment, it wasn’t pleasant but it wasn’t unpleasant enough to demand he put it out—especially when she was so comfortable.

He thanked her for a wonderful evening, then allowed his driver to hand her out of the car and escort her into her building, up three flights to her apartment.

She heaved a disappointed sigh as she undressed for bed.

So.

He was tired of her already.


10: JUST ANOTHER PLAIN STREET

Tuesday morning, Emilio strode into his lab only to come face to face with a giant of a man who looked quite familiar roaming around the rooms, picking things up, inspecting Emilio’s notes, and generally acting as if he owned the place. He had wavy red hair past his shoulders, a star tattoo on the left side of his neck, and large gold hoop earrings. He was wearing oxblood leathers, Doc Martens, and a loose white linen peasant shirt. His wrists were also tattooed. The gold filigree ring on his left hand was studded in rubies and so wide it covered his ring finger from knuckle to knuckle.

He had ice blue eyes.

On Emilio’s lab sofa lounged Sebastian, looking put-upon.

He shouldn’t be surprised, but now he was going to have to deal with the male version of Victoria. Without warning, much less preparation.

Oh, joy.

“Buenos días,” he said.

The pirate didn’t look up and didn’t stop what he was doing. “Bon jour,” he muttered absently, flipping through Emilio’s current work in progress.

“Make yourself at home,” Emilio said caustically in English.

“Merci,” the pirate returned vaguely.

Emilio looked at Sebastian who shook his head wearily and rolled his eyes. Either the man hadn’t caught Emilio’s sarcasm or he didn’t care.

Emilio was betting on the latter.

“You are here to interview me, I will surmise?” Emilio asked casually as he made himself comfortable in his desk chair, leaning back and clasping his hands behind his head. He thunked his loafer-clad feet on the desktop.

“Oui,” he said, still absently, leaning closer to the lab table and squinting at what must be some tiny writing. In French-accented English, he said, “I hear you’re dating my sister.”

“Sí,” Emilio agreed. “She, however, is not dating me.”

Étienne LaMontagne barked a laugh.

He continued to roam and Emilio continued to watch him in silence, curious as to how he worked. There were notebooks everywhere, and Étienne flipped through every one of them, then stopped on a project Emilio had begun four weeks ago.

“Have you made any of this?” he asked suddenly, his finger tapping the pages.

“Yes.”

“Let me see it.”

Dutifully, Emilio arose and went to a cabinet, pulling out a beaker full of liquid that looked like antifreeze. He set it in front of Étienne and leaned on the table to watch.

“Get me some bearings. Gears.”

He had those, too, and had been wondering how soon Étienne would ask for them. Emilio signaled to Sebastian to help him fetch them from the back room. There were trays and trays of bearings in various casings scavenged from mechanics and meticulously cleaned before being submersed in Emilio’s goo. There were even more trays of different types of cog-and-wheel assemblies pulled from clocks, engines, bicycles, and anything else Emilio could think of. He wasn’t an engineer; he was a chemist. But chemicals had to have an application, and Emilio had to find those things they were to be applied to.

Étienne inspected each casing carefully, took the bearings out, played with them, rolled them in his palm, dumped them in a Petri dish and swirled them around.

There were a lot of “hmms” and “uh huhs” and “nuh uhs.”

He spoke abruptly again. “Can you thin this out without losing its properties?”

“Yes.”

“Okay. You’re hired. Sebastian.”

“Paperwork will be here by Friday,” he intoned. “Machine specs are over there.” He pointed to a cardboard tube three feet long and almost that big around, standing just inside the lab’s front door.

“Clear all this off,” Étienne ordered imperiously, gesturing to Emilio’s largest table, scattered with beakers, test tubes, Bunsen burners, microscopes, and all the regular sorts of items one would expect to find in a chemist’s lab.

Emilio shrugged and obeyed. It wasn’t as if he was doing anything else today.

Why do you base your goals on decisions somebody else has to make?

Or ever.

What did he have to lose by putting his patents and talents to work in commercial ventures that came to him, instead of the other way around?

The plans were rolled out, and Étienne went into the specifics of what he needed, why, and where. Emilio simply took notes and listened, even though the session was being recorded.

And as they went along, Emilio grew more and more impressed with the man’s genius. LaMontagne knew he was a genius, and he expected Emilio to be one too. Étienne’s wife, so Emilio gathered, was apparently the impetus for this design, and she, Étienne said off-handedly, was a visionary. He couldn’t bear to disappoint her by not being able to carry out her vision. And Étienne had a hard time keeping chemists who could concoct the lubricants, coolants, and catalysts appropriate for the machines he designed to power her buildings.

Thus, Emilio supposed he should be flattered to have earned Étienne’s approval, but he wasn’t.

Then Étienne stopped talking and looked up at Emilio expectantly, the same way Victoria had looked at him Saturday night, waiting for compliments he hadn’t given her.

“I can have the formula finalized and ready for mass production by next Friday,” Emilio said.

Étienne’s jaw dropped, and then Emilio felt smug. “That’s it? That’s all you have to say?”

“What did you expect me to say?”

“He expects you to tell him what a genius he is,” Sebastian drawled. “Possibly also how pretty he is.”

Emilio chuckled. “No.”

Étienne looked almost affronted, but only said, “I haven’t even given you the deadline yet.”

Emilio gestured toward Sebastian. “He said you were behind schedule.”

“Not that behind it. Are you sure you don’t need more time? This cannot fail.”

“I have been working on the prototype for four weeks, based on the specs you faxed to me. Even if I had not been, this project is not difficult. However, you will have to arrange for mass production.”

Étienne studied him closely for a long moment, narrowing his eyes and looking at him suspiciously. “You’re normal,” he accused.

Sebastian laughed.

Emilio simply nodded.

“I didn’t know normal people could do these things. Normal people don’t make the engine of the world run.”

Emilio lifted an eyebrow. “Ah, but did you not just hire me to make your engine run? It would seem the engine of the world cannot run without me.”

Étienne pursed his lips. “Touché. I like you.”

“I cannot reciprocate at the moment.”

Suddenly Étienne laughed.

He actually could reciprocate, but Emilio found it oddly refreshing that he could say what he was thinking to both twins without fear of it being taken personally or hurting their feelings or offending them. And, he realized, neither of them could turn off the spigot because they didn’t understand what it was like to take offense.

This was not a changeable character trait, so if Emilio wanted a relationship with either of these people, the onus was on him—the normal one—to do the majority of the work.

“Do you have other siblings?” he asked suddenly.

“Oui. Three older. Two younger.”

“Are they all like you and Victoria?”

“No,” he snapped.

Emilio decided not to pursue that. “I will have my attorney peruse the contracts and return them as soon as he can. Now, get out of my lab and do not ever come in here without my permission again.”


11: NOTHING FANCY, NOTHING MUCH

On Thursday, Victoria’s forehead thunked on her desk, her arms and hands dangled uselessly over the floor, and her butt was barely hanging onto the edge of her chair. Her office door opened and she groaned.

“I’d planned to ask if you’d allow me to buy you lunch, but I see you’re busy divining the meaning of life in the carpet.”

“Go away,” she muttered, even though her heart began to race at the sound of his voice and she was suddenly far too happy he was here. “My life is a wreck.”

The door closed. She heard his footsteps on the carpet and the creak of her desk when he propped one hip on the edge. “We’re friends. Feel free— What the hell is that?”

“That what?” she muttered.

“That … thing … on the wall behind you.”

“Oh. A painting of a matador on black velvet.”

“That does not look like a matador.”

“It’s old and the paint’s chipping. My grandma gave it to me.”

There was silence for a full ten seconds. “That is disgusting.”

She snorted in spite of herself.

“I can’t look at it anymore. Tell me what’s wrong.”

“Ching figured out who you were, and the fact that I’m a nightclub singer offends his sense of propriety.”

“Is anybody else upset about it?”

“The American faculty who can afford Leo’s already know. Kilgore and his wife are frequent guests.”

“Ah. And Sanz?”

“Sanz expects me to make you go running home to mommy. He wants to protect the university from your filth and evil, so now I’m on ‘Dragon Watch.’”

He chuckled. “‘Dragon Watch’?”

“You know. Like suicide watch. He really doesn’t like you.”

“I shouldn’t think so,” he drawled. “Opportunity, remember. Señora Sanz is not known for her fidelity.”

“Oh, I have no doubt about that. I hope you wore a condom because that woman is more promiscuous than you are.”

Emilio choked.

“I hadn’t actually thought that was possible.”

Silence. “Ahhhh … ” He cleared his throat. “Hm. Well. Then. I must say Sanz did warn me about your vicious tongue.”

“I am only vicious when I’m trying,” she told the carpet matter-of-factly. “Most of the time I’m just thoughtless and rude.”

“Which one was that?”

“Which one was what?”

“The crack about the condom and relative promiscuity. Thoughtless or vicious?”

“That was an expression of my concern for your health.”

“You were being thoughtful?”

“Oh, yes. I can do that, be thoughtful. Sometimes. Almost never.”

He laughed outright at that.

“And so?”

“And so what?”

“How’s your health?”

“Ah, oh. It’s fine.”

“So far.”

He snorted. “I can manage to monitor my germs or lack thereof without your help, but thanks for your concern.” She snickered. “Is this the extent of your troubles?”

“No. My application for tenure has been deferred. Again. It’s just the next step in the ‘I’m so sorry, Dr. LaMontagne, not this year’ carousel.”

“Sounds familiar,” he said wryly. “What was wrong now?”

“That lazy student’s lazy government official father came and chewed me out for calling his lazy daughter lazy.”

“And what did you say?”

“‘I did not mean to insult her.’”

“Coward,” he drawled, which made her snort another laugh. “How could he take offense at that?”

“Because then I said, ‘It was a statement of fact.’”

He chuckled.

“Well, it was! I never insult people on purpose. Almost never. A lot.” She paused and realized she was, indeed, attempting to divine the meaning of life in the patterns on her Persian rug. She sighed. “Then he propositioned me. I told him I don’t date lazy men. That was when he got mad and demanded satisfaction from the administration.”

Emilio’s chuckle turned into a genuine laugh. While she liked being able to make him laugh, she didn’t know why it was that funny.

“This is my career we’re talking about! Petty little bastards. And you know what else?” Now she was on a roll, and since Emilio had decided to make himself her audience, she was going to take advantage of it. “Leo suspended me until further notice.”

He suddenly stopped laughing. “Because of me?”

“Yes. Funny how my biggest problems are because of you. Not funny ha-ha.”

Silence. Then, “Should I remove myself from your life?”

“No,” she snapped, curling her lip at the floor. “I like you. But more importantly, I haven’t made you want to slap me yet.”

“Slap you?” he asked with a wary tone of voice.

“With very few exceptions, the longest amount of time I have ever dated any man is about eight hours, spread over three dates, at the end of which the man said, ‘Get thee to a nunnery,’ and when I informed him that meant ‘whorehouse,’ he said, ‘Good. You’ll starve to death before you get any work.’” Emilio started laughing again. “He thought he was smarter than he really was.”

“Did you tell him that?”

“Of course I did. People need to know these things if they want to improve themselves.” She huffed. “I’m beautiful! Why does this not count for anything? And I’m very smart. A genius. You don’t get that often. Beautiful and genius. And I can sing. Maybe not to your standards, but better than most people. Also, I am pragmatic. Which is why I stay in this stupid job instead of hanging out my shingle as— Well, I don’t know what.”

Now he was laughing so much he didn’t seem to be able to stop long enough to string a whole sentence together. She went on because she was bursting with troubles. “Furthermore! Speaking of money. I found my latest royalty check yesterday. I get two a year. You know how much? Twenty-three dollars. Four CDs out and I get a measly fifty bucks a year. I’ll bet those are the ones you bought since you seem to be my only bona fide fan. You probably buy them mail order out of the back of a Playboy.”

In between laughs, he managed to say, “You have almost no publicity outside the expatriate community.”

“Oh, there’s a newsflash.”

It was a long time before he calmed enough to speak and he still had to stop to accommodate another bout of laughter. This could get annoying. And she was going to have to sit up soon. Her forehead was starting to hurt and her dangling fingers were getting prickly.

“They would love you if they heard you,” he said finally. Laughed. “But they can’t hear what’s not on the radio and they can’t buy what they haven’t heard.”

She groaned. “How did you find me?”

“One of my banderilleros was listening to one of your CDs and I loved it.”

She felt a little fluttery. “Okay, and how did he find me?” she asked the carpet.

“He’s an American. He heard you at Leo’s.”

Her mouth fell open. “No!”

“He doesn’t go there much, even though he can afford it. It’s not his style.”

“How in the world did you get an American on your cuadrilla?”

“I was impressed with his bullfighting, so I offered him the job.”

Victoria knew the names of every American—male and female—who’d ever swung a cape in a Spanish bullring, and most of them were dead. “Did Franklin or Fulton get reincarnated when I wasn’t looking?”

American bullfighting,” he drawled with much humor. “He was a rodeo clown in Texas. That’s where I met him.”

She didn’t see that coming. “What were you doing in Texas?”

“Clowning.”

Her head snapped up to see him half sitting on her desk, as she had imagined him, but he was dressed in ordinary Levi’s and a plain white tee shirt. His only adornment was a worn braided leather strap around his wrist. His curly black hair was a tidge damp, his jaw had a day’s growth, and he was smiling at her as if she’d just told him the world’s best joke.

He looked at her forehead, blinked, and started to laugh again. She put her hand there to feel the deep ridge the edge of the desk had carved into it. She rubbed at it with a huff.

“I spent a year on the Texas rodeo circuit.”

Victoria’s mind turned to TV snow. “Greasepaint? Barrels? Floppy clothes?”

“Oh, yes. It was a long time ago, but it made me a far better torero. Some of us do that. It puts a little polish on the art, a little flash in the performance. The Latin American toreros find it an important part of their training and repertoire. I did a corrida in Peru and saw that they had something I didn’t.”

“Uh, did you have fun?”

He laughed. “I did. But I have never worked so hard in a bullring in my life. Three or four times a week, too. Mickey says being a torero is the easiest money he’s ever made.”

Mickey?” she squeaked.

“Miguel Olmos.” He snorted. “We propagated a rumor he’s Mexican so he wouldn’t have to deal with the publicity, but yes. One of my banderilleros is Mickey O’Neal from Alabama, as Irish as they come, who trained me to be a rodeo clown, and that is how I found Velvet.”

He said nothing more, but Victoria relaxed back in her chair with her hands over her mouth, giggling, utterly delighted. He smiled at her giggles, but even that faded until there was silence. That was okay. She liked being silent with Emilio.

In the back seat of his car.

Curled up against him.

He wasn’t tired of her after all.

Yet.

“What do you really want to do, Victoria?” he asked after arising and crossing her office to her little fridge. Strangely, she didn’t mind him helping himself, and he tossed her a bottle of orange soda. “Besides making tenure, I mean?” He made himself comfortable in one of her wing chairs across from her desk. “Stay at Leo’s the rest of your life? Make more CDs? What?”

That was an excellent question, and her delight waned until she was weary and discouraged again. “I don’t know anymore. Ching gets in my way with his arbitrary rules and regulations and meetings and— Augh! Kilgore soft-pedals it, but it’s attracting the notice of the administration, which is being lobbied to move my position over to languages and I don’t want them to start considering it. Leo pays me a couple hundred a week and I usually get another hundred in tips, but as you know, he suspended me, so I’m out that money for the next few weeks. You already know what I make in CD sales. It’s just not enough. It’s never enough.”

“Are you in that much debt?”

“I’m not in debt at all!” she protested. “I’m saving to buy my apartment building.”

His eyebrow rose.

“Sebastian’s suggestion, because my goal is to be financially independent. But I have an English degree. I couldn’t be smart about that, though, could I? Nooo. I could’ve done anything I wanted, but I had to get an English degree. Half the reason I’m here is because I can make more money than I can in the US. Not half the reason. Maybe a quarter. An eighth. And I just hired a voice teacher, which, at my level, is not cheap.”

“It appears your primary investment is your wardrobe.”

She huffed and mumbled, “Still not in debt.”

“Admirable. But I have an idea,” he said thoughtfully. “It won’t solve all your problems, but perhaps you’ll earn decent residual income.”

“What,” she muttered morosely.

“Let the paparazzi be your PR firm. Distribution solves itself if there’s enough demand.”

Her eyes narrowed at him where he sat as relaxed as if they’d been friends forever, slumped down in the chair, his legs stretched out in front of him and crossed at his ankles.

“I’m listening.”

“They don’t follow me everywhere I go,” he said matter-of-factly. “As toreros go, I live a boring life and I make it my business to make sure they stay out of my business.”

“You are very good at that, I’ve noticed. Except for all your girlfriends. I wonder who’d have a vested interest in leaking each and every one of those names to, perhaps, hide the information he doesn’t want out.”

“Guilty,” he said without a shred of guilt. “But my selective control of information has its vulnerabilities. The press can find me when I do something out of the ordinary, as perhaps … stand chest-to-breast in the middle of an exclusive American expatriate club with a singer who goes by the name Velvet who never meets anybody, and all the while I’m undressing her with my eyes and she’s allowing me to do so.”

“Yes, you were, and no, I wasn’t.”

His eyebrow rose.

“Hrmph. Okay, maybe I was.”

“Uh huh. The only way they’d have known I was there is if they got a tip from an employee who then got paid very, very well.”

“Leo fired a bunch of people, but I didn’t think that was fair. Any guest could’ve done it, and I can think of six people off the top of my head. They were all there, too.”

“A rival for your affections, perhaps?”

She nodded sagely. “That’s very likely.”

“How fortunate for me,” he said sarcastically. “I presume it will take six months to learn if your CD sales went up from this attention?”

“No, three months. I found it yesterday because it was buried in a pile of mail I hadn’t gone through yet.”

He cast her a disbelieving glance. “You have unopened mail that’s three months old?”

“Nine. Possibly eighteen. I was only a third of the way through. A quarter.” She caught his look. “I’m a busy person! And I have more important things to think about. I get to mundane things when I can.”

“What about your bills?”

“I manage. Somehow. Not quite sure.”

“You need a keeper.”

She chortled. “I need a wife.”

He laughed. “Don’t we all.”

“I want an assistant,” she grumbled. “But I don’t get one till I have tenure.”

“If your CD sales go up enough, perhaps you can hire an assistant. And they will go up if I’m making myself available to the paparazzi, with Velvet on my arm because I am Velvet’s devoted admirer.”

“Not as much as you were before,” she muttered. He snorted. “They’d find out who I am. I can’t hide in plain sight the way you do because I’m distinctive. They’d make my life even more miserable.”

He nodded. “Being ordinary is my secret weapon.”

“Leo would never speak to me again and Dr. Ching would lobby for my dismissal.”

“But would it matter if your sales went up?” He shrugged. “Do you have savings to last you three months?”

She scowled. “Of course I do. But it won’t work anyway. Not in the long run, I mean, because they’d get bored with us in a week.”

He raised a finger. “But not if there was a hook to our relationship.”

Now Victoria was totally confused. “The hook is Velvet’s real name and life.”

“No,” he drawled, “the hook is that Velvet, the most beautiful woman in Spain—in the world, let’s say—is a thirty-two-year-old good Mormon girl who is unmarried, has never been in a long-term relationship with a man, and doesn’t believe in premarital sex.”

“Sebastian explained all that?”

“Yes. He also said you are socially inept, which is true.”

“Oh, good. Now I don’t have to waste my breath. Did he tell you I eat men’s hearts for breakfast?”

“He did not specify which meal.”

“Did he tell you I crush their souls for fun?”

“I find that villainously admirable.” Pleased, she looked at him expectantly. He sighed. “I told him that didn’t apply to me because we’re friends.”

She smiled and clapped lightly. “Excellent.”

He nodded regally. “Once they learn this about you and that you are a college professor, they will draw the natural conclusion that because I,” he continued, pressing all ten of his fingers to his chest, “am the antithesis of you, I am attempting to make you another one of my conquests. The intrigue then becomes: Can he or can’t he? Will she or won’t she? We make ourselves conspicuous. Everyone will know who Velvet is, and that El Draque is her biggest fan. Your CD sales will skyrocket.”

Victoria considered. Now, she didn’t know quite what she’d do if she could live off her CD sales, but certainly she would eventually stumble over some interest and pursue that for a while until she tired of it, at which point she would find another.

But Dr. Ching was making her pleasure in teaching vanish, and she hadn’t gone into any depth about the ongoing administrative fight to get her position pulled out of the international business department and over into the languages department.

Leo would never let her come back if she got the paparazzi involved, and she had to admit, she would miss performing. She loved performing, having all eyes on her, being fawned over and complimented. Then again, if her album sales went up, she could perform at other venues.

At some point, she would have to leave Covarrubias University, either because of how much Dr. Ching hated her or because the chair of the languages department was successful in his bid. In the first case, she’d be fired. In the second case, she’d resign.

She really did need a backup plan.

“Okay,” she said slowly, “but I don’t want to lose my privacy.”

“Collateral damage, sorry. I’ll put my people on stalker detail.”

That did relieve her mind, but she chewed on her lip. “You know, I don’t think this is going to work in the long run. My CD sales might spike, but they’ll drop just as fast. I’m not going to sleep with you, so the longer the intrigue continues without any appreciable gain on your part, they’ll get bored anyway.”

“We’ll perpetrate well-timed antics.”

“What about your reputation as a manslut? Your machismo? I mean, you can’t seduce me, so your failure will not go unremarked.”

He scoffed. “Not even a cherry-print frilly apron will stop me getting whatever I want whenever I want.”

She nodded slowly and tapped her lips with her finger. “This is true,” she said absently. Then she sat bolt upright and glared at him. “And what if you get tired of me? Everybody gets tired of me eventually.”

“I won’t get tired of you,” he said, his voice filled with something deep that she was tempted to trust. “I promise.”

She took a deep breath, and bit her lip. “You’ve spent years guarding your privacy very carefully and maintaining your mystique. Why would you give that up for me? Why do you care?”

“Because friends don’t write odes to their friends’ beauty when they’re fishing for compliments, and they don’t tell them they performed well when they didn’t. This is what friends really do.”

She popped to her feet and leaned over the desk to offer him her hand. He reached out and took it.

“It’s a deal.”


12: SITTING ON A RAINBOW

Sometimes, Emilio thought smugly as he escorted Victoria out of the building, across campus, and down the street to a sidewalk café, his cunning actually scared him.

Simply dating her was never going to get him where he wanted to be, which was inside her. He hadn’t made any secret of that, but she wasn’t taking him seriously. Emilio knew how to seduce women on a long timeframe, but since Victoria dated for marriage, she probably wouldn’t give him that much time.

She can keep the upper hand with any man.

The minute she realized she wasn’t in control of the situation or Emilio, she’d get rid of him.

Marriage was very low on his priority list, but he certainly wasn’t going to get tired of her—at least, not before she realized the relationship wasn’t going anywhere but to bed. He almost laughed again. After her highly entertaining rant, he would be as underhanded as he had to be to keep this woman in his life for the foreseeable future.

And now he had a mechanism by which he could extend his timeline and create opportunities he wouldn’t have in a simple dating relationship. Further, it would allow him to seduce her without her catching him out at odd moments after she’d lulled him into a sense of safety in her obliviousness. She did it on purpose, setting little traps because it fed her vanity and she liked having her vanity fed. This way, he could seduce her without feeding her vanity, because God knew it didn’t need to get any fatter than it already was.

His mother would love her.

“What do we do first?” she asked brightly.

“We go out. We eat together.” He pointed to a photographer across the street who was, at the moment, snapping pictures of them. “We go to shows together. We make sure we’re seen together. We hold hands. Snuggle. Kiss a little—not much. I’ll address and refer to you as Velvet, and you’ll address and refer to me as Dragon. Not El Draque. We’ll speak English when we’re in public. Using English will point up your American-ness. As you know, Americans—”

She blinded him with that smile again. “Yes, yes, I know! Everyone would love to see an American lose. This is going to be fun!”

“Very fun. Your kind of fun, eh?”

She nodded and scrunched her body up, then squealed and did a little jig. Then she stopped. So he stopped. “Hey. What if people don’t believe I’m a virgin?”

“They’ll turn up every piece of ground you’ve ever walked. There will be men coming forward to express their bitterness, and praying I can get you into bed. It’ll be their revenge on you by proxy.”

“Huh. That’s true. Okay. And by the way,” she said airily, “I know you’re going to use this to try to seduce me for real. It’s not going to work.”

He groaned.

She snickered. “Oh, don’t take it personally. I’m frigid.”

“‘You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.’”

She laughed outright.

“Is this a clinical diagnosis?” he asked dryly.

“Well, no, but I’ve been kissed—a lot. Like, really kissed. Tongue down the throat and everything. My butt’s been squeezed. My breasts kneaded. I do have my limits and I’m not shy, either, but nothing ever happens. Inside me, I mean. I know what’s supposed to happen. I read descriptions of how it feels, but that’s never happened to me. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I have no personal space.”

Somehow he managed to keep from laughing. “I have, yes.”

“I try to feel what’s supposed to happen when a man touches me, but … nothing ever does. It is frustratingly easy to avoid temptation because I’m never tempted. Lydia calls it my ice vagina.”

Emilio choked.

“At this point,” she continued blithely, “I have to agree, because there is no other explanation.”

Emilio was still dizzy from ice vagina, so he wasn’t thinking very clearly. “Everyone’s different,” he offered vaguely. “Saturday night, you wanted me to stroke your back again. You shivered.”

She huffed. “That’s not the same. Lots of people have that reaction when they’re touched just right and it’s not sexual and it doesn’t matter who does the touching.”

He had to agree, as Dolores had stroked his back to put him to sleep when he was a small boy. He rather missed that.

But Saturday night, when he’d stroked her back, that had not been such a simple pleasure.

He hoped.

“Even the great Dragon can’t melt your … heart?”

She hesitated. Too long. Only a second. Possibly three. “Nope. Besides, we’re friends.”

He’d heard the hesitation. The silence. He heard it as clearly as he’d heard the voids in her performance.

“And, as you reminded me, friends don’t act like lovers.”

He refrained from also reminding her that she had been the aggressor Saturday night, that she was the one who’d behaved like his lover, that she’d risked her hobby job to talk to him, that she’d attached herself to him publicly.

Do that again.

And now that tiny gap of silence gave him another reason to think that even if she hadn’t been tempted before—which he did not believe—she wasn’t immune to Emilio at all.

“Shall we decide on the term limit?” he asked, so he could figure out exactly how to pace this seduction.

She shrugged. “I think until the end of corrida season. That’s about when I get my next royalty check, give or take a couple of weeks. If I don’t do any better than I did this time, then we’ll know it didn’t work.”

He had his work cut out for him and he only had three months to do it.


13: WALK ON BY

For the first Saturday night in too many months or years to count, Victoria was not at Leo’s dressing and preparing her voice for the night’s set. Lydia was at the university conducting an impromptu music theory lab.

Sebastian had gone back to London and her brother had gone home to Kansas City, so now she had a Saturday night free for family and they were gone. It would have been nice, she thought rather sourly, if her twin brother had given her more time than a late dinner and early breakfast, for crying out loud.

Just hired your matador boyfriend.

He is not my boyfriend.

Uh huh. Would you come home once in a while?

You have a lot more money than I do. Come visit me.

Not a bad idea. I’ll have Tess call you.

So now Victoria, for reasons she did not know or care about, had decided it was a good time to organize her memorabilia—something she’d had on her to-do list for ten years—and was digging around in the oubliette, otherwise known as her closet floor. She tried to take out too many boxes at once and dropped one, spilling its contents everywhere. That was okay. That was kind of the point, after all.

She was sitting on the floor, deep in sifting and sorting, shredding and filing, when Lydia came home and found her there. She stepped closer to Victoria, then bent down to pick up a final exam with a big red A on it. “Dr. Halvorson?” she said slowly. “That was the tall blond calculus professor, right? The one with the Harley?”

“Yep.”

“I thought you would have already gotten rid of all that stuff.”

Victoria snatched the test from her and looked at the calculations. She remembered blowing through that test like a hot knife through butter. Then she put it in the shred pile. “I didn’t have time before I left for my mission.”

“Your mission ended ten years ago.”

“So? It was packed away and I had things to do. You expect me to sort out twelve-year-old school papers when it takes me eighteen months to go through my mail?”

“You do have a point, but Halvorson was the reason you went on a mission in the first place.”

Victoria scowled. “That is so not true.”

Lydia heaved an irritated sigh and muttered something under her breath, but she was silent while Victoria sifted through some more papers.

“Oh, here. Dr. Piedmont, my graduate advisor.”

“Another one,” Lydia muttered. “Remind me: How many faculty did you date?”

Victoria stopped and thought about that a minute. Started to count on her fingers. “Uh … four. I think. Not including Halvorson. But I didn’t date Piedmont. That would have been a huge cliché and besides, he hated me, remember?”

“It did seem like it,” Lydia mused. “I always got the impression he was jealous you’d been to Spain and he hadn’t.”

Victoria waved that off. “He had money. He could’ve gone anytime he wanted.”

Lived in Spain, I should say. You know, actually getting the flavor of a place. Knowing the language. Talking to people, not being a tourist.”

Victoria hesitated. “Maybe,” she said thoughtfully. “I could see that.”

She flipped through a stack of weathered, stuck-together, water-stained papers with fading pencil and blue lines, gently prying leaves apart. She didn’t remember much of this coursework, but now, in hindsight and with the experience of teaching, saw that Dr. Piedmont hadn’t cared about the subject so much as he cared that she contribute something significant to the current scholarship and do it well. Her brow wrinkled when she saw a small slip of paper she never recalled seeing before. In Dr. Piedmont’s elegant hand, he’d written, “When you get to Spain, give me a call” and his phone number.

She handed that to Lydia over her shoulder, unable to make any sense of that at all. She’d never seen it before.

“What’d he look like?” Lydia asked quietly.

Victoria could see him clearly in her mind’s eye. “He was almost my height. Longish light brown hair that curled a little. Blue eyes. Wore tweed. You know, with the patches and everything. He was being cheeky.” She laughed. “He looked like a stereotypical hot, pervy English professor and he milked it.”

“Was he?”

“Was he what?”

“Hot and – or pervy.”

Victoria shrugged helplessly. “Hot, definitely. Pervy, how would I know?”

Lydia released a long sigh. “Well, obviously, you wouldn’t. How much time did you spend with him?”

“He was my advisor all of grad school. I think, maybe … three times a week all the way through.”

“Right, and he was on your case constantly. Why didn’t you ask for a different advisor?”

She looked at Lydia, confused. “Why would I do that?” Lydia opened her mouth, but, suddenly uncomfortable with the conversation, Victoria switched subjects. “What did the doctor say Wednesday?”

Lydia’s face paled.

“Did you get rid of it?” Victoria asked matter-of-factly.

“No,” she whispered. “It … I miscarried in the waiting room.”

“Oh, Lydia!” Victoria cried, clapping her hands over her face.

“It was my first visit,” she whispered, her eyes moist. “I didn’t know— I’ve never been pregnant before. I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to ride motorcycles when you’re pregnant. That’s what the doctor said.”

“How did you get home?”

Lydia shrugged helplessly. “I rode my motorcycle.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Victoria demanded. “I would have been there to get you and … I don’t know what else. But whatever people do when stuff like that happens.”

Lydia swiped at her cheek and looked away. “I hadn’t decided yet. I wanted— I wanted to keep a part of him, but I wanted nothing to do with anything about Jack Blackwood ever again.

Victoria couldn’t empathize. She never could. But she faked sympathy fairly well, so she shoveled all her crap back into the oubliette and pulled Lydia into the kitchen. “This calls for ice cream.”

Lydia laughed sadly. “I— Vic, I don’t really want to talk about it, you know?”

“You never talk until you’re ready. In the meantime we can eat ice cream because that’s what girlfriends on TV do.”

That turned her laugh from sad to wry. “Okay.”

Victoria was in the middle of getting out bowls when the doorbell rang, which was odd enough on its own. At eleven o’clock at night, it was downright scary. Lydia checked the peephole, then Victoria smiled when she opened the door to Emilio, standing there relaxed, in low-riding jeans and a navy button-down with the collar open.

“Hola!” she called.

“Hola,” Lydia said warily, examining him as if she were about to slice him up to put him under a microscope. “What are you doing here?”

His eyebrow rose at the challenge, but he said, “My mother let me come over to see if Victoria can come out and play.”

That made Lydia laugh reluctantly, and she opened the door, discreetly swiping at her face with her shirtsleeve.

“Where did you learn to speak Spanish?” Emilio asked Lydia. “I can’t place your accent.”

“Miami. It’s Cuban.”

“It’s a little past your bedtime, isn’t it, Emilio?” Victoria called, bewildered but delighted and hoping to stave off questions about Lydia’s past. It was too bizarre to explain.

He stood in Victoria’s little living room and looked around, then he looked at her with a wry smile. “Want to get started on our project? A little jaunt. Won’t take long.”

“Oh yes!” Then she sighed and turned back to the ice cream. “No, can’t. Sorry.”

“Vic,” Lydia said weakly.

“No can do.”

Victoria heard a sigh behind her. “She’s saying no because she thinks she needs to stay home with me and let me cry on her shoulder. Because that’s what TV girlfriends do. When in doubt, do what TV people do. She tries very hard to do what she thinks normal people with normal friendships do.”

“Oh?” came Emilio’s voice. “She’s horrible at it, isn’t she?”

Lydia burst out laughing, which was the most Victoria had heard her laugh since she arrived. Victoria rolled her eyes. “I heard that.”

“Eh, why don’t you come with us?” Emilio offered.

“Isn’t that going to be not according to plan?”

“It isn’t going to hurt my reputation by being out on the town with two beautiful women. I have sisters. I know when a girl needs some cheer, so come with us.”

Victoria sighed. He was so much better at this than she was, and he continued to prove it all evening as he put Lydia between him and Victoria on the way to a small tapas and flamenco bar in a different not-very-nice neighborhood. He kept up a running chatter with her for an hour as the three of them ate outside under fairy lights swaying with the breeze, intermittently watching the flamenco dancers and cajoling Lydia’s story out of her. Victoria wasn’t surprised when he finally succeeded, and was content to listen as Lydia poured it all out—all except the miscarriage. Victoria supposed that it was too fresh.

He praised her, commiserated with her, and gave her a little pep talk, occasionally switching to English if Lydia’s Spanish wasn’t adequate to regional nuance. What Emilio had meant to be a jaunt turned into three hours of therapy, but by the time they left, he had Lydia laughing, telling jokes, and generally being happier than she’d been since she’d arrived.

“Why are you so quiet?” he asked when he realized Victoria was lagging a couple of steps behind.

She smiled and shrugged. “Just listening.”

There was a small silence, then Lydia said, “Oh, hey, I’m gonna catch a cab and go home, okay? Been fun, but I’m beat.”

“Okay,” Victoria said vaguely, watching Emilio hail a cab, open the door for her, pay the driver, then knock on the roof to send it on its way.

“What are you thinking?”

Victoria looked at him and said, “I can’t do that.”

“Can’t do what?”

“That, what you did, with her. Cheering her up. Making her feel good.”

He shrugged. “Well, I’m exhausted.”

Victoria slid him a disbelieving glance.

“I can’t be on too long before I have to stop. If she hadn’t left, you’d both be home right now.”

Victoria’s brow wrinkled. “I don’t understand.”

“You take energy from people, from crowds, and you expend more. For you, when you’re on, you run like a German engine, no?”

“Right.”

“When you go home after the party’s over and you haven’t had enough attention, you miss it. You crave more.”

“Right.”

“I don’t take in energy like that. People take energy from me. I can be social, I can be on, but I go home for silence and solitude, not because it’s time for the party to end. I don’t want to hear another person’s voice for three days so I can recharge. Like a battery.”

Victoria simply couldn’t fathom that. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. You’re not shy and you’re a showman in the ring.”

“I can’t socialize for very long. Cocktail parties where I have to make small-talk drain me. Being with high-energy individuals for a long time drain me even faster. I get fed up with the people around me. Wanting to keep my private life private is only one reason I don’t let the press catch me, and when they do, it pisses me off.”

“You are quite rude to them,” she agreed, and he laughed. “So … all night, entertaining Lydia, that wasn’t fun for you?”

“Oh, hell no. I had intended to take you to a different place that would put us in the middle of a bunch of cameras for about fifteen minutes, but you weren’t budging, so … ”

Victoria was still having a difficult time understanding. “You did that for her? When you knew it would drain you? You don’t even know her.”

He stopped with a sigh and dropped his face in his palm to massage it. “I did it because it needed to be done. And now I want to go home because I can’t take one more minute with humans around me. Especially you.”

Victoria didn’t know what to say to that, but when he raised his head, she merely threw herself in his arms and said, “Thank you, Emilio. You’re wonderful!”

•  •  •
Emilio had not lied about his state of mind, but he had underplayed the reality and the reality was, he had a pounding headache. He also had a dire need for some quiet time before his corrida tomorrow evening, which was in Madrid. He decided to leave very early in the morning and drive himself because that would be five uninterrupted hours of solitude.

But tonight had been almost worth every agonizing minute of trying to keep the conversation going long enough to get Lydia to start spilling her guts. The look on Victoria’s face. The hug. The gratitude for pulling her out of a situation she didn’t know how to deal with. She had no idea how short he’d been with her, how rude he’d been to her, how close he’d been to getting utterly vicious:

Get lost. Go home. If I have to stuff you in a cab, I will. I don’t care how badly I want to fuck you, I need solitude and quiet, and if that means you will hate me forever, then bad luck for me, I guess.

Or maybe she did know and it hadn’t occurred to her to take it personally because she didn’t take anything personally, even when she should.

But in spite of his need to get away, when she’d thrown herself at him after he’d told her he’d had enough of her, he’d wrapped his arms around her and kept her close for a minute before she’d disengaged. After all, Victoria wasn’t the one who’d drained him, and somehow, some way, she’d given him enough of her energy to keep him civil. Further, she’d said nothing on the way to her apartment, nor did she attempt to snuggle or touch him.

No, don’t get out. You go home and get some sleep. Thank you, Emilio!

He’d let her go in with his driver without saying a word to her. He didn’t care how crass it was because he was dangling on the last strand of the last bit of rope. And now here he was lying in bed, falling asleep, wondering for the first time, if he couldn’t stretch his limits for a woman he liked and desired, how in the world did he think he could stand the amount of people-time he’d have to invest in to teach a college class?


14: PLEASURES OF THE SOUL

Three days later, Victoria sat at her desk long into the evening, her foot propped on its edge, looking at the note she’d found Saturday night. It was a Lawrence Kansas number but not a campus one. It was years old. Would it still be in service? She didn’t know, but she couldn’t figure out why Piedmont, of all people, would have written her a note like that.

There was a little shadow outside her door and then a knock.

“’Min.”

Emilio, sharply dressed in a navy suit, pale yellow shirt, and blue-and-yellow tie, stopped in the threshold and stared at her with an expression she couldn’t decipher, then he pointed to her feet. “Blue-green today.”

She smiled a little. “Peacock.”

“Are you okay?”

She waved the note and said, “I got shoved down memory lane and I don’t know what to think. I just found this in a stack of old assignments. It must have been in my student box way back when, but I never saw it.”

He closed the door and skirted the desk, heaving himself up on it, right next to her foot, and took it. He read it, his eyebrow rising. “You don’t seem the type to have a black book.”

She looked at him suspiciously. “What does that mean?”

“Who is it?” he asked.

“My grad school advisor. Who did not like me.”

He looked at her sharply. “But he stuck with you throughout.”

Victoria nodded, then, to her annoyance, he started to laugh and handed it back to her. “He wanted to spend some quality time with you as a non-student.”

She closed her eyes and would have massaged them, but her eyeliner and false eyelashes were perfect. “Quality time? Doing what?”

“Having sex.”

Her eyes popped open, her feet dropped to the floor, and she sat up straight in her chair. “What?” she breathed, horrified. Horrified that when Dr. Piedmont’s face flashed across her mind, there was that … funny … feeling again. “Dr. Piedmont—? With me? No. Not possible.”

“There’s only one reason I’d give my beautiful and genius student my phone number at the end of our run together.”

She waved that off. “Yeah, but you’re you, and you’re looking at this through the eyes of a promiscuous celebrity. I repeat: He. Did. Not. Like. Me.”

He snorted. “I’m looking at it through the eyes of a man. A man who wasn’t about to seduce his student when he was in the power position and was avoiding the appearance of impropriety.”

It was making her dizzy, that funny feeling. In fact, she could barely catch her breath.

“Have you called the number?”

“No,” she muttered.

“Why not?”

“I’m afraid,” she blurted.

“Of what?”

She shook her head. “I don’t know,” she muttered, then crumpled it up and threw it in the trash. That solved that problem. “So,” she said brightly, looking up at him and fluttering her perfect lashes. “How was Madrid?”

“Smooth.”

“You’re bored.”

“I am.”

“That explains so much!”

He laughed. “Your brother’s project provided me an interesting diversion. For a while.”

“You’re done already?”

He nodded. “Done, but not delivered. It won’t be until my lawyer and his lawyer have come to an agreement on patent issues.”

“You have patents?”

Again, he inclined his head. “Don’t look so shocked. Normal people can be brilliant, too.”

Victoria didn’t know she was looking shocked, but decided not to pursue that. She tapped the Tuesday sports pages and said, “I see you’ve been torero hunting again. Why are you so upset about Molina getting the Fine Arts medal this year?”

He snorted. “Alejandro Molina got the Fine Arts medal because the Culture Minister isn’t an aficionado and only knows who the kid is because he’s a fourth-generation torero, is constantly in the gossip rags doing something outrageous, and spends his winters being a Versace model. What is that saying in English, about the spoon?”

“‘He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth.’” Victoria picked up the paper and scanned it. “‘ … Culture Minister cited his style as being aesthetic, relaxed and profound, poised and deep. When asked his opinion, El Draque said—’”

“‘The little shit doesn’t have an artistic bone in his body.’”

She looked up at him from under her brows. “I wouldn’t throw stones if I were you.”

“So you’ve said. Please note I already have a Fine Arts medal.”

Her eyebrow rose. “Was that before or after you almost died?”

“You’re annoying, you know that?”

She grinned. “You know what I like about you, Emilio?”

“Which thing?”

“You’re as vicious as I am. You just make sure there are reporters around when you decide to skewer somebody.”

He burst out laughing.

“For what it’s worth, I don’t hang out with my colleagues, either. I’m barely civil.”

“‘Colleagues,’” he muttered, “is not what I’d call them.”

“No, let’s see. Cabré—who, by the way, is three ears and a tail ahead of you—”

“Yes, thank you. I know that and I remember what I said.”

“Cabré says something derogatory about your … endowments … on display every Sunday—”

“He’s upset because I have something to display.”

“—and you say, ‘I’d argue that God blessed us both equally. I have a big cock and Cabré has big tits.’”

Emilio bent his head and rubbed the back of his neck, but his body was quaking.

She smirked. “Oh, that’s precious. You’re pining for the days of the bitter rivalries of Joselito and Belmonte. If one won’t occur organically you’ll stick pikes in everybody’s necks until you get one?”

He was still laughing and said, “Guilty.”

“Go you!”

“I cannot believe that came out of your mouth.”

“I teach profanity, Emilio. They’re just words artificially imbued with subtext.”

“Ah, as ‘Do you want to come up to my office for a drink?’ is really just a simple offer of hospitality somebody decided needed to mean something more.”

“Exactly!”

He raised his head, his face lit up with a stunning grin that made her catch her breath. “You need to be taken to bed and thoroughly fucked for two weeks. At least.”

Victoria’s mouth dropped open and the flutters in the pit of her belly intensified.

“Ah, what is this?” he taunted. “No ready response? And here I thought I’d met a worthy opponent. No indulto for you!”

She tried not to laugh. Truly, she did, but she burst into gales and thunked her forehead on her desk, then raised her hand to slap her palm on her desk. Three times.

“And El Draque makes another clean kill,” he purred. “It’s a shame you don’t count in my statistics.”

Victoria was still laughing when she saw his hand under her face. She put her hand in it and let him draw her to her feet. Once again they were breast to chest, her hand in his, and she found herself looking into the eyes of a very happy man who had made her laugh harder than she had in … forever.

Clear light brown eyes, ones that flickered down on her lips then back to her eyes. Her smile faded. So did his.

A little.

Victoria found breathing to be a bit difficult at the moment, yet she couldn’t look away. She cleared her throat and said—or tried to say— “Where are we going and what are we doing?”

“Tonight,” he murmured huskily, “we have reservations at the most prestigious restaurant in town. I made sure to get them for El Draque and Miss Velvet.”

“Ah. To make a point about my American-ness.”

“I expect we’ll have to wade through a sea of reporters and photographers. Hopefully I will have an opportunity to say something shockingly contemptuous about one of my ‘colleagues,’ and—”

“I will concur.”

His eyebrows rose.

“Well, I didn’t say you were wrong, did I?”

•  •  •
God, she was beautiful, Emilio mused as he escorted her through the press of paparazzi he had made sure would be there to greet them. She was dressed in loose iridescent blue-green chiffon pants, and a body-hugging white lace top.

Her mass of curly red hair was twisted up in an artful mess with peacock feathers stuck in the twist in the back and bobbing over her head. Wispy red curls brushed the skin around her face and neck and floated carelessly in the breeze. She had sparkly rough rock studs in her ears and a silver filigree gauntlet around her right arm. Her makeup was dramatic, with the artful application of black eyeliner and false eyelashes, and a deep red lipstick that lightened her already pale skin and made her gorgeous freckles pop out.

She smiled for the cameras as if she’d been born in front of a lens, and clung to Emilio as if her life depended on it. It didn’t. It was all for show, as were the sultry glances she cast at him at strategically timed moments.

This was a bad idea, Emilio realized suddenly, because it would be all too easy for him to fall into the fantasy of Velvet, when Victoria couldn’t tell her professor’s proposition from a terse command.

Suddenly she leaned into him and he smelled her luscious perfume. “Are you okay?” she whispered.

He looked at her, shocked. “Ah … yes?”

“Let me know when you’ve had enough. I don’t want to be the reason you need to bail.”

He was still staring, but now because she had expressed concern about his well-being and offered to mitigate it. “Thank you,” he said finally. “I will.”

She gave him a sincere smile, and flashes went off, blinding him and her.

On the other hand, the reality of Victoria, the socially inept college professor with an aficionado’s deep understanding of his art—

The Victoria who’d made him laugh harder than he had since … well, since the last time he’d been in her office—

The Victoria who’d displayed an uncharacteristic awareness and protectiveness of his introversion—

The Victoria who’d looked at him as if he were her next meal—

This was not a fantasy. She was reality. His reality. This woman not only existed, but she was on his arm and wanted to be there.

The reality of Victoria was far more seductive than the fantasy of Velvet.

The restaurant was much quieter, and the maître d’ bowed. “El Draque. Miss Velvet. Please come with me.”

It was almost its own room, the cubby they were shown to, and no one could peek in on them. It defeated the purpose of the outing, but at the moment, it suited Emilio just fine.

He was jolted out of his musings when she waved the menu away. “Order for me, please,” she said matter-of-factly.

His eyebrow rose. “That’s not like you.”

“It is very like me. I can’t be bothered to decide what I want.”

“You ‘can’t be bothered’ to choose your own food?”

“No. I like new and different things, but deciding is too much effort.”

He was so stunned, he blurted, “I haven’t ordered for a woman in years. What if I make a mistake?”

“It doesn’t matter,” she said earnestly. “If I don’t like it, you can order me something else.”

He closed his eyes. “Do you do this with every man you date?”

“Well, of course.”

Of course. “Are you a vegetarian?”

She snorted.

“Do you like mussels?”

“No.”

“Are you allergic to anything?”

“No.”

“Do you like lobster, shrimp?”

“Yes.”

“All right,” he muttered. “We’ll start with something simple.”

It wasn’t until the waiter had brought their bread, taken their order, the sommelier had brought Emilio’s wine, and Victoria had sipped at the soda he’d requested for her that they had some peace.

They were in a three-sided booth, but instead of sitting opposite each other, they were sitting so close their hips were touching. He was so disoriented by her attitude about her food, he had no idea when or how this had happened. Then he noticed she was left-handed.

She had maneuvered them this way, and suddenly Emilio felt like she had become his accomplice in this seduction. He’d been very clear about his intention to seduce her. She had been very clear she found his intentions amusing, but futile. Yet she was eager to put herself in Emilio’s personal space and she had been since they met. She said wanted to feel something and he was conceited enough to assume she wanted him to make her feel it. Because now—

Now there was the kiss that hadn’t happened.

The kiss she’d been all too aware of, the kiss she had wanted to happen, the kiss she had let slip away because …

That he didn’t know, but he was going to figure it out.

He took a deep breath and reached for the bread.

“As explanation,” he murmured as he broke off a piece, swirled it in herb-laden olive oil, and offered it to her. She didn’t hesitate to open her mouth so he could feed her. “It takes a while for me to get as tired as I was the other night. You were quiet the entire time, but Lydia made me work harder socially than I have in a long time and I had nothing left to give you if you ramped up.”

“She’s lost,” Victoria said matter-of-factly. “She’s always been lost, ever since I met her. I’ve never known what to say to help her. I could only listen. I don’t know how to help anybody—but you did, and I’m grateful. She’s a lot happier now.”

“You care about her. Her well-being.”

“Of course,” she said again, obviously surprised. “She’s my best friend.”

“Why?”

Victoria blinked. “Uh … I don’t know. Does friendship need a reason?”

“The rumor is nobody can put up with you, yet she lived with you for how many years?”

“Five total. My mission was in between.”

“So she lived with you after not having lived with you for a year and a half, then ran to you when she needed to hide. You must give her something.”

He watched her face while she thought about it, then she said, “I believed her.”

“You believed in somebody? So you’re not entirely self-absorbed.”

“No, I said I believed her. She had a bizarre childhood and nobody ever believed her. They thought she was joking, so she’d play it off like she was. She tried therapists who wanted to treat her for a variety of things except the thing she went there for, because none of them believed her, either. I listened to her and I believed her and I didn’t laugh.”

“But you also didn’t judge.”

She huffed. “There’s nothing to judge. It just is. And even if I didn’t believe her, it’s an awesome story, and if she wanted to tell it like it was true, so what? She’s brilliant and she’s driven and she can function in the world a lot easier than I can, so who’s the crazy one?”

“Why did you believe her?”

She paused. “I was … impressed … that she was telling the truth and that she desperately needed just one person to believe her.”

“Ah,” he murmured.

“You say that like you know what I actually said.”

“I spent months listening to Sebastian dump his religious baggage. I understand your theology and vocabulary.”

Her mouth turned up in a soft, pleased smile, but she made no reply.

“So what’s the story?”

Victoria shook her head. “Not mine to tell.”

He was curious, but not so curious that he would press her. He was unexpectedly pleased that she would refuse him because it meant that whatever other flaws she had, she was loyal.

He said nothing more as he continued to feed them both until their dishes were laid out on the table. She looked them over with delight and clapped lightly. “It looks delicious.”

It might well have been, but to Emilio it was like eating straw, because she expected him to keep feeding her—and he was only too happy to do so. He watched her take pleasure in every bite, with a bite of lemon sorbet between each dish.

He didn’t know if she was doing this on purpose or if this was her normal date behavior, but how she’d gotten to thirty-two without being forced he couldn’t fathom. But if she had been, that would explain everything.

“Have you ever been assaulted?” he asked suddenly.

She finished her bite and patted her mouth politely before answering. “Yes,” she said matter-of-factly. “But it never got far.” She gave him a sly smile. “I have ways.”

“Oh?”

She tsk’d. “I don’t want to ruin your vision of me.”

He laughed. “And what is my vision of you?”

She batted her lashes. “As a delicate flower, of course.”

“Some delicate flowers are poisonous.”

“Well, I didn’t poison my lipstick, although that’s an excellent idea.” Victoria’s eyes sparkled, and she leaned toward him, almost close enough to kiss, and whispered, “I’m adept with a baseball bat.”

Emilio groaned and shook his head, grinning. “You got that from Sebastian.”

“I did,” she said proudly. “I prefer aluminum to wood, though. Light, legal, and lethal.”

“But not convenient. You don’t have it right now.”

“I don’t often make mistakes about my dates,” she said matter-of-factly. “But when I have, I’ve … somehow … arranged it so I wasn’t vulnerable.”

He snorted. “You must keep God very busy.”

She laughed. “I think I’ve driven my guardian angel to drink.”

“Or you’ve just had excellent luck,” he suggested just to see what she’d say.

She looked at him with what might have been pity. “I believe in two things,” she murmured as if explaining something complicated to a not particularly bright child. He almost smiled. “Hard work and divine intervention. Not necessarily in that order.”

He did smile then, and she smirked, her eyebrow raised.

“Luck, divine intervention … ?”

“You can call it whatever you want.”

“Ah. And running into each other in Kilgore’s office?”

“Not coincidence,” she murmured huskily. “I needed help. There you were.”

He blinked. Looked down and scowled a little in thought. Glanced up at her. “That’s how you think of our meeting?”

She nodded. “I know that’s how Sebastian thinks of having met you. He needed you. There you were.”

Emilio was so shocked, he didn’t know what to say to that except, “He saved my life. More than once.”

Her dramatic eyes went wide. “How?” she breathed. “He never told me that.”

He laughed suddenly, unreasonably happy to have a way to entertain her as much as she entertained him. “We—my cuadrilla and Sebastian—were in France, around Nîmes,” he murmured with a slight smile, never taking his eyes from her, while she planted her elbow on the table and put her cheek in her palm to listen. “In a liquor store. Sebastian hadn’t been with us very long. He was like a lost little puppy dog. We were the first people who took pity on him.”

“He says you figured out he had money and he’d pay everybody’s way if you let him tag along.”

Emilio laughed. “We also needed someone who could speak French so we could expand our territory. But he was shy. Nervous around women. We really did feel sorry for him, so he became a bit of a mascot. Anyway, we were in a liquor store. There were quite a few people around. We weren’t paying attention. We’d just won a bunch of illegal corridas and had enough money to buy a second suit of lights, so we were getting loud. Bragging. I turned around, and there was a man with a gun right to my head.”

“Hoooo,” she breathed.

“Naturally, he wanted whatever I had on me, and I was about to give it to him. Then I saw Sebastian right behind him. I’m still not quite sure what he did, but the robber went down fast, and it sounded like a wood board had cracked. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Our shy puppy turned into … I don’t know what. I can’t describe it.

“The robber was on the floor, crying. His leg bones were poking out of his pants and all of a sudden, Sebastian had the man’s gun in his hand. He turned around and shot another guy who was robbing the proprietor. In the knee, I think. He did it in a blink.”

Emilio was watching her to gauge her reaction, but she was simply sitting enthralled, as if he were telling her a fairy story.

“Then he stuffed the gun in the back of jeans like they do on American television—that was an odd thing to see, that people really do that—and grabbed the guy with the broken legs—he was passed out by then—and dragged him out of the store. The rest of us were in shock and couldn’t move. He returned and grabbed the other robber by the hair and dragged him out, too, screaming and crying. He came back into the store, and yelled something in French. Three people ran out.”

“What’d he say?” she asked, breathless.

“‘Anybody else feel a need to take other people’s money?’”

She laughed, delighted. “That’s so him.”

Emilio grinned wryly and looked down at his glass of wine. “We thought about dumping him. He was an armed American kid who was touchy about whose money was whose, with a mindset that having a gun and using it is a human right. But we finally decided to keep him around.” He took another sip and grinned into his glass at the memory. “I don’t know how he did it, but he could make himself at home in any barrio in Spain, make friends, get ammunition—and anything else we wanted, as long as it didn’t offend his sensibilities too much. He got even better at it once he could speak Spanish. It wasn’t the first time he protected us, nor the last.”

“You know a whole different side of him.”

“I do.”

“Do you know why he’s so touchy about money?” she asked with genuine curiosity.

He looked at her in shock. “You don’t know?”

“No. And I know Étienne doesn’t know why.”

Emilio ran his tongue over his teeth. “Do you know anything about Sebastian’s relationship with his father?”

Victoria, suddenly bemused, shrugged hesitantly. “I don’t think they have much in common,” she ventured.

“Ah, well. Sebastian is touchy about whose money is whose because his father would take away whatever money he earned and give it to someone he felt needed it more than Sebastian. He would also make him return money he’d earned or force him to refuse payment altogether if he thought Sebastian needed it less than the payor did.”

Victoria gasped, her eyes wide in horror. “That’s awful.”

“Yes. His father didn’t think of it as theft. He thought he was being generous and teaching Sebastian to be generous. It was also a way to keep Sebastian powerless and under his thumb, to control him with the rationalization that his father should be and was providing for him adequately. It made Sebastian see theft almost as egregious as murder. It was something we realized that night, though we didn’t understand it, and he couldn’t explain until we got him drunk. Everything I own is under Sebastian’s stewardship.”

“But Sebastian’s rich now. I can’t imagine Uncle Charlie doesn’t know this.”

“Your Uncle Charlie,” Emilio sneered, “had a screaming fit when Sebastian was admitted to Harvard’s MBA program. He made the mistake of asking how Sebastian planned to pay for learning how to acquire piles of filthy lucre. Sebastian was apparently so angry by that time, he flipped open his bank book and pointed out that his balance had almost seven figures. He said, ‘I don’t have to go to business school to learn how to make money. I want the credentials to back up what I already have.’ He was nearly disowned. I’m not sure they communicate much, if at all. Sebastian says his father doesn’t want other people’s money. He just doesn’t want anyone to have more than he thinks they need, and, worse, his idea of ‘need’ is little more than indoor plumbing. Or so I understand.”

She was shaking her head slowly, confusion and disbelief all over her face. “That can’t be right. Uncle Charlie and Aunt Dianne moved to a really nice house in a really nice neighborhood.”

“Ah, well, that was because Sebastian’s mother had been accumulating money right along with Sebastian, keeping it from his father the entire time until she had enough to buy a house. Cash. She gave an ultimatum: ‘I’m moving. I refuse to live in destitution when I don’t have to. If I’m more important to you than your evil pride, you’re welcome to come with me, but I’m not holding my breath.’”

Victoria’s jaw dropped open and she clapped her hands over her mouth. “She said that?” she whispered. “‘Evil?’”

“That’s the way Sebastian told it. I take it his father accused her of being Eve, tempted by the apple, and leading him out of the garden. He went with her, though. Sebastian says he grumbles, but he took to retirement rather well in spite of himself.”

He watched Victoria carefully because her eyes narrowed and her jaw tightened. “I would never have put up with that,” she said tightly. “Certainly not for as long as Aunt Dianne did. Evil pride, indeed. I hope she made him go to the bishop and lay that one out.”

Emilio could not have been more pleased by her reaction. No, she was no delicate flower. “In his defense—at least, this is what Sebastian thinks—he grew up poor and was afraid of having more, the changes it would bring to his life. With money comes responsibility, and he may not have felt adequate to the task.”

Her nostrils flared. “I have no patience with people who are afraid of success,” she snapped.

He snorted. “You have no patience with anybody. Except Frederico.”

That pulled her up short. She blinked then started to laugh. Her eyes sparkled and a little dimple appeared in her cheek. Her joy was unfettered and infectious.

… she’s actually really fun.

That was the part of the Sebastian’s description Emilio should have paid more attention to.

She was still chuckling when she said, “Sebastian’s too generous to be that territorial.”

“He’s generous, yes, but it hurts. He knows it’s the right thing to do and he’s very careful about his giving, but he feels powerless and violated when he does it. He is well aware he’s simply fighting his own insecurity, so he gives in an attempt to overcome it.”

Victoria’s smile melted a little with each word. “I didn’t— I never knew. He seems so … unflappable.”

“Obviously he keeps a lot from his family. I can tell when he’s troubled, but I have to get a few drinks in him to make him tell me what’s on his mind.”

She blinked and focused on him. “You really care about him,” she said in wonder.

“I do. He’s like a brother to me. A younger brother who is street smart and money wise, but needed to grow up fast, guided by someone who wouldn’t go out of his way to screw up his life. Someone who wouldn’t let him screw up his own life because he didn’t know how not to. No matter how poor my family was, I had a father who did the best he could, gave me a mother who’d learned from her mistakes and grown wise, and both of whom wanted me to get an education. My bullfighting was the major source of household income, but it wasn’t much and none of us ever thought I’d be able to make a living fighting bulls.”

“Poor Sebastian,” she sighed sadly.

Emilio reached up and gently clasped her chin, brushing his thumb lightly across her cheekbone. Her long black lashes fanned out on her pale skin when she closed her eyes.

“You look like a porcelain doll,” Emilio murmured.

Her mouth twitched and she opened her eyes slowly. “There’s very little you can do to improve on perfection.”

He burst out laughing and reached out for a morsel he then fed her, wishing that full, sinfully colored mouth was wrapping itself around his cock instead of a grape.

“If I don’t compliment you endlessly, you’ll do it yourself? Are you expecting me to agree?”

She winked at him. “Tell me about your family, the one you spend all week taking care of.”

He was still chuckling, still picking out small bites. “I don’t, really. They’re all old enough to take care of themselves. My brother runs the household. Both my sisters are in college and have fiancés. My only hands-on is to keep my youngest brother in line and to make sure my mother gets to the doctor—well, when she was going to the doctor, that is. And I pay the bills.”

“She’s getting better without the doctor?”

“Surprisingly, she is. I’m … proud of her.” It was true, he realized. He was proud of Dolores, of her willingness to take hold of her fate, to trust her gut. But then, it was her gut that had gotten them through some pretty rough times when he was young.

He started when he felt Victoria’s fingers on his wrist, felt her fondling his braided-leather bracelet. “What is this?”

“Dolores—my mother—actually, she’s my stepmother. She made that for me for Christmas when I was eleven. She had an old leather purse she couldn’t mend anymore, and nothing to give me because we didn’t have any money. So she made this for me. I only take it off when it needs to be mended.”

Her lashes fluttered up and her ice blue eyes bored into his. “Otherwise, never?”

“No.”

She smiled a little and went back to fondling it. “How many strands is it?”

“I don’t know. Five. Six.”

“It’s beautiful.”

No, it wasn’t. It was old, torn, and had been mended so many times it had had to be sewn to a new leather strap. But he didn’t believe Victoria was lying or making small-talk or handing out false compliments. He didn’t think she was capable of it.

And right now, he wanted to kiss her so badly he thought he’d die if he didn’t. But unlike earlier, now she was oblivious, looking him straight in the eye, nudging him when she was making a point or being sly, closing her mouth seductively over the fork when he fed her and closing her eyes at the same time.

“You said you could have chosen to do anything you wanted,” he murmured later in the evening when the dishes were cleared and he had his coffee and aperitif, and she had a flan. “Why did you choose English?”

“It was easy,” she said bluntly. “My goal was to come back to Spain after my mission and grad school. I got a job with one of the international schools agencies teaching at an ex-pat high school in Madrid. I did that for a year before I got this job. I wanted to be in Sevilla and I wanted to use my doctorate.”

“And that’s where your advisor, Dr.—? came in?”

“Piedmont.” Her brow wrinkled and she began to toy with her utensils. She wouldn’t look at him. “Yes,” she said slowly, “but I don’t want to talk about that.”

Interesting. “What would you have been if you hadn’t decided to do the easiest thing?”

She hesitated. Chewed on her bottom lip. Still wouldn’t look at him. “An engineer,” she said softly. “Like Étienne. He has two degrees, mechanical and electrical. I thought it would be difficult to get a job here with that, and I wanted to come back so badly.”

Emilio shrugged. “So you did what you had to to reach your goal. Why are you upset?”

Again she turned those blue eyes on him, but they were sober. “Because it was easy.”

“So? Why does everything have to be hard to be worthwhile? You had a goal. You chose the option most likely to get to it. It wasn’t the easy path. It was the one with the best odds of success.”

She blinked and looked away as if she’d never thought of it that way. Indeed, she had a lot of odd ways of looking at things.

“Do you not like teaching? Or your subject matter?”

“Ha! If I didn’t like it I wouldn’t do it.” She took a deep breath and thought for a moment. “When I say it’s easy, I’m not referring only to how it would be as compared to engineering. I’m referring to how difficult it is for others in my profession to do it. Many others—scholars who are highly regarded and do excellent work—find it difficult, and I don’t. I type out a paper, edit it once or twice, have somebody proof it, send it off to the journal. It gets published. It just … happens. It’s like magic. Others struggle. I don’t.”

He watched her while she spoke, her expression one of bewilderment and possibly— “Does this make you feel guilty?”

She rolled her eyes. No, of course it wouldn’t. “It makes me wonder what I’m missing, like a flavor in a dish that I can’t taste that everyone else is talking about. If I can’t taste that flavor, then I’m excluded from the conversation. I don’t care about the exclusion. I care that I’m missing something others find noteworthy and I want to understand the noteworthy thing. Or that I’m missing something I should be doing, and am not, but I can’t figure it out.

“But then the day comes when I do figure it out and realize they’ve been struggling with something I’ve been doing effortlessly for years. They just called it something else, and I’ve been wasting my mental energy trying to get to the next level. There is no next level. It stops with me. I’m at the top.”

“I’m sure your colleagues write things you haven’t thought about before.”

“Of course they do, but it takes them years to do it. I love it when they give me something new to chew on, but it takes so long. My work … It takes me a month. Maybe. To write something that my colleagues find groundbreaking. Furthermore, all I need is a moment. A word. A silence. A note of a song I sang the Saturday before. And the words appear on the paper.”

There was something there, in the words she chose, in her slightly bewildered tone, that caught Emilio’s attention. He said nothing and fed her while he tried to tease it out.

And then he did.

“You think you’re too smooth.”

She blinked and trained those gorgeous eyes on him, the corners of her mouth turning up slightly. “Yes. Yes, that’s it, exactly.”

He raised one eyebrow and fed her a strawberry. “But if the fans like it and the sportswriters like it and the manager and promoters and trainer like it and you’re awarded the Fine Arts medal— And the boss likes it and the audience likes it and the record executive likes it—”

“There is still going to be one person out there who knows you’re a fraud and calls you on it—probably the least likely person you’d ever expect.”

He leaned into her and whispered, “I thought you didn’t care about other people’s opinions.”

She moved her head slightly. Slowly. Until her mouth was almost at his. “I care,” she whispered in return, the sound sweet with strawberry and lemon, “about my opinion. In my opinion, I am a fraud.”

Again the kiss was there, hanging in the air between them, a breath away. Neither one of them moved, and Emilio could not look away from her eyes, so cold they burned, begging him to kiss her. Her eyelids lowered. Her bottom lip opened. She took the breath—

She never moved away, but her eyelashes fluttered and suddenly she was looking at the table instead of into his eyes. “How did you—” She cleared her throat. “Ah, how did you get into bullfighting?”

Under other circumstances, that would have made him smile, but not now. He was too tense. For someone who claimed to be frigid, she was too wound up, and Emilio hadn’t spent enough time with her to have done it. Furthermore, she had always been at perfect ease with him.

No, Emilio wasn’t the one who’d wound her up so tight she’d shatter with an accidental brush of a thumb across her nipple. He was picking up where the last one—whoever he was—had left off, and Emilio would be damned if he let her go before he’d fully unwound her.

It took him a second to collect himself. “It was a dare. I was fourteen or so. Do you know how common back-alley bullfighting is?”

She nodded.

“I took the dare. Won some money. Did it again. Helped my father support my family. Got through college and graduate school. That’s another reason they don’t want me to dirty up the faculty roster. Not only am I a torero, I trained in back alleys instead of a proper school.”

She smiled weakly, taking little peeks at his mouth, still as wrapped up in the kisses that hadn’t happened as he was.

“But my father died and my family needed a lot of money fast, so I went back into bullfighting to pay the bills. I got better and better, and now here we are.”

“But you said you had patents, so you came up with stuff on your own.”

He nodded. “I have—or, had—no idea how to exploit those. Sebastian told me to patent them and hired a patent attorney for me, so I didn’t really have to do anything at all.” He paused. “For what it’s worth, I had the same problem in grad school you have now.”

She blinked. “Impostor syndrome?”

He nodded. “It was challenging but not difficult.”

Her smile was tinged with melancholy. “Maybe that’s why Kilgore doesn’t think you’re serious. Are you going to go ahead and apply for the position again next year even though you know you’ll get turned down?”

He paused and blinked, suddenly jerked out of his desire.

He looked down at his coffee.

He thought a moment. “I … don’t know. I forgot all about it.”


15: CANTALOUPE ISLAND

“Well, whatever you did last night, it’s working,” Lydia announced the next morning and slapped a newspaper in front of Victoria’s plate.

“Ooooh,” she said, picking up the tabloid. American songstress Velvet, El Draque’s latest flame. “Hm. That makes me sound like a throwaway.”

“You knew that going in,” Lydia pointed out.

“Yeah, but it looks different from this angle.” There were pictures of them going into the restaurant and coming out again. She was clinging to Emilio, but looking away from him and smiling at others while Emilio looked only at her. “Do I really come off this way?”

Lydia craned her neck to look. “No. I mean, you do it that way, but it always looks like you’re having a tête-à-tête with a friend. Last night, you were on.”

“Does it look fake?”

“To me it does. I can’t speak for anybody else.”

“Because if it looks fake, then it’s going to backfire.”

The phone rang then, and Victoria studied the pictures more while Lydia got the phone. But then— “It’s for you.”

Vellllvitt,” growled a male voice on the other end.

Victoria scowled. “Am I officially fired now?”

“No,” Leo gritted. “My accountant tells me it would be advantageous for you to resume your Saturday-night duties.”

Well, wasn’t this a surprise! “That’s nice,” Victoria said airily.

“Yes or no?”

“I want a raise and back pay for the two weeks I was suspended, plus tips.”

He heaved an aggrieved sigh. “Fine. Two-fifty a week.”

“Six hundred.”

“Three.”

“Six.”

“Four.”

“Five.”

“Fine,” he snapped. “But only if you make sure Bautista comes with you. No Dragon, no pay. And you still have to sing.”

Victoria should have seen that coming, so it wasn’t a surprise so much as an annoyance. “I’ll talk to him. If he says no, we’ll have to renegotiate.”

“Whatever we do, this time we’re going to get it in writing.”

He hung up.

“Don’t let him lock you into an open-ended contract,” Emilio told her two days later after he’d shown up at her office with lunch. They’d made themselves comfortable at one of the tables in the university cafeteria. “I’m not willing to show up at Leo’s every Saturday night for more than three months, but you need to have a longer term that doesn’t depend on my attendance.”

She looked at him where he sat across from her, unpacking the lunch his cook had prepared.

“Singing at Leo’s is a hobby,” she answered. “I’d do it for free. Negotiating a contract is too much effort for a hobby.”

“I happen to know you’re bringing in most of his Saturday room revenue, and you deserve a good cut of that.”

“If attendance goes up, it’ll be because you’re there. It’ll go back down again once you’re gone.”

“No. By that time, your albums will be getting play and they’ll be there for the same reason I was—to hear you sing live. I’ll be irrelevant by then.”

Emilio would never be irrelevant to her, and right now, he was very relevant to everyone else, too. The two of them were gathering a lot of attention, but then, that was the point. Her real name had been outed within thirty-six hours of their date, as had where she worked and what she did.

A professor! At the prestigious Covarrubias University! In the international business department!

With that bit of information, the “throwaway” tenor of the tabloid pieces had trickled to almost nothing, but very few people at the university was happy about it. Ching was furious. The rector was irritated. The board was conflicted about what, if anything, to do about it, but Sanz was ecstatic. He encouraged her to continue the relationship and reiterated that he expected her to grind Emilio’s ego to bits—the more public, the better.

“I didn’t expect this,” she murmured as she ate. “The immediacy.”

He shrugged. “Fame is a fickle thing. They build you up one minute and slash you to pieces the next. I’m used to it, so I forgot that part of it when I proposed this. You know this isn’t going to be easy, right?”

She huffed. “Do I ever take anything personally?”

He chuckled. “Point taken.”

“When do we put out the rumor I’m a virgin?”

“I will escort you home Saturday night. You will go to church Sunday. You will allow yourself to be tailed. You will go to the corrida as usual. I’ll have my people drop the right hints in the right ears.”

Saturday night, Emilio asked her to dance to the house music in between sets. “I can’t dance,” she gritted as he swept her into his arms.

“We aren’t going to be moving that much,” he murmured as he palmed her butt and pressed her to him. “The point is to make it clear I’m attempting to seduce you, and you’re oblivious. It’ll confuse everybody until you go to church tomorrow.”

No, she wasn’t oblivious. But she was getting used to feeling so fluttery when they were close, when he touched her back, when he pressed against her.

She went breathless every time she thought about the kisses that hadn’t happened.

And wished they had.

Desperately.

Church was an adventure. No one knew what to do about the paparazzi outside, and a few men in the elder’s quorum had to post themselves at the doors to keep the cameras out. Her bishop called her in his office, and he was furious.

“What is going on?” he demanded. “You were on the front of the sports section draping yourself all over El Draque.”

Victoria sighed and told him the whole of it.

He sat silent for a moment after she’d finished, his brow wrinkled in thought. “So for you, this is about your job at the university.”

She nodded wearily and rubbed her temples between her fingers. “It’s a way to boost residual income from my CD sales to give me a cushion when they fire me, which— Well, I’ll be surprised if I get a contract next year.”

He sighed. “Hermana LaMontagne, I am not quite sure what to say. From the moment you walked into the mission home eleven years ago, I have worried about your fascination with him.”

“Not him! Bullfighting.”

“You broke mission rules to see him fight.”

Noooo, he just happened to be on the cartel that day.”

There were disadvantages to having a bishop who had also been one’s mission president when one was young and in love with her assigned locale.

“Hrmph. I do not like this. I do not like him. He will lead you down the wrong path. If you wanted to date a torero that badly, could you not have chosen any other one? Frederico, perhaps. He seems like a nice boy. Relatively speaking.”

Ugh.

“I don’t know any others and I wasn’t trying to date a torero and we’re not dating. We’re friends!

“He is not your friend, Victoria. He doesn’t want to be your friend. He is not doing this to help you.”

“But—”

“Victoria! As much as you date, it worries me that this man is the one you cannot see for who he really is. I am sorry we are currently out of worthy Latter-day Saints for you and the other single sisters to date, and I am sorry that you will have no other option than to marry a nonmember if you find one who loves you. But El Draque is not that man.”

She slumped back in the chair and crossed her arms over her chest. “His name is Emilio,” she muttered.

“I know what his name is!” he snapped. “His name is Vice. Temptation. Sin. I am not your mission president anymore, so I cannot order you to obey or send you home. But I am not happy. Furthermore, you must do something about the photographers. We cannot have these people here intruding on our Sabbath simply because one ward member is perpetrating a publicity stunt.”

“I know. I’ll … stay away until it dies down.”

“I don’t want that. I want to keep you close, to help you resist temptation, since you will not stop flirting with it.”

“Then figure out something else.”

That discussion hurt, and she drove home utterly dejected.

She wasn’t surprised when Emilio showed up on her doorstep late that night demanding to know why she hadn’t been at the next-to-last corrida he’d have in Sevilla this season. “I had prepared to dedicate a bull to you.”

“Did anybody know that?” she asked wearily and plopped on her sofa, putting her bare feet up on the coffee table.

“No.”

“Then you didn’t end up looking like a fool, did you?”

He dropped beside her and, as usual, they were pressed hip to hip and shoulder to shoulder. “There was some question as to your whereabouts, but I said you were on unexpected errands of mercy, as members of the Mormon church are wont to be.”

That was mildly amusing. “My bishop is mad about the paparazzi. He’s mad about lots of other things, too. I decided to not go back to church until this is over with.”

Emilio said nothing, but they sat together in the quiet and the gloom of the streetlamps outside her front windows. The curtains sang as sweet breezes swept through the balcony doors and through the apartment. She sighed when he picked up her hand and fingered her chunky bracelet.

“You know what the press is calling you now?”

“Mmm, no.”

“Professor Velvet.”

She laughed suddenly, flattered. “That’s cute.”

“Innocent and respectful.”

“Meaning, I may not be as much of a throwaway as the others.”

He shifted a little. “A throwaway?”

“Emilio,” she said wearily, “every woman attached to you is seen that way. I’m no different.”

“You are different,” he rasped. “Don’t ever think you’re not.”

“I’m not going to argue the point. You have history. Lots of it.”

“Victoria—” He stopped abruptly, as if he had run out of words.

She waited, but he sighed heavily and continued to stroke her bracelet with his thumb. “Pyrite,” he murmured after a while, then plucked at a green, pink, and white stone. “What’s this?”

“Watermelon tourmaline.”

She watched as he examined her jewelry with something akin to a scientist’s curiosity, which would make sense.

“Pyrite’s cheap,” he said thoughtfully.

“It’s also pretty and never worn for jewelry.”

She felt herself blush a little when he slid her a glance she couldn’t decipher. “There’s more to it than sparkles and originality.”

Victoria couldn’t help her small, delighted smile. “Do you know what we call pyrite in the US? Fool’s gold.” She looked down at his big, dark hands holding her slightly smaller, pale one. “I have done a lot of very foolish things in my life,” she said softly. “When I was six, I got separated from my family in Paris. I had a little money. In my six-year-old wisdom, I assumed everyone would just go home. So … I hopped the Métro and went home.”

No reaction. She glanced up at him, and he was fondling the tourmaline in her bracelet but he was listening to her.

“Étienne went to MIT. I wanted to go there, too, but my parents said it was too far away. So I settled for Brigham Young. They didn’t like that, either. I didn’t want to go to the University of Missouri in Kansas City because that was within walking distance of my house. I wanted to go away. Lawrence, Kansas was seventy kilometers away and as far away as I was allowed to go.

“When I was twenty, I decided to go on a mission. I was graduating and I had to get away from Kansas City, but I didn’t know where I wanted to go or what I’d do there. My parents laughed it off as if I weren’t serious because we’d already had the fight about where I’d go to college. They weren’t about to let me go on a mission. My brothers helped me slip the paperwork through and the second I turned twenty-one, I was on a plane. Étienne paid for my whole mission.”

Emilio squeezed her hand a tiny bit.

She took a little breath, and continued. “When I came home, my parents were still mad about the mission, but I’d gotten home safe and sound, so everything was fine again. But grad school … with an English degree. What was the point? I needed something useful and safe and solid for someone like me. Like … being a secretary. Nursing was mentioned.”

Emilio barked a laugh, which made her grin at him. “Exactly! But my goal was to come back to Spain, which, by this time, I knew better than to say out loud. I got into grad school, which was easy. Getting through it wasn’t. Piedmont made me work harder than anybody ever had or ever has since. He demanded everything I had and a whole lot more, and he demanded it in record time. Two years. I didn’t care if he liked me or not. I was just happy that somebody finally saw what I was capable of and required I do that and more. I’m not sure I’d have such a deep sense of being an impostor now if he hadn’t shown me how far I could go if I expended some real effort.”

He hummed but said nothing for a few seconds. “That’s why you resent that note and what it represents, that now you know why he wanted to get you through your program so quickly.”

She nodded. “I had really good feelings for him and then he had to go and ruin it.” She took a deep breath. “I knew I wanted to get a job teaching because that was the most efficient way to get back here. My parents were— I can’t even tell you how angry they were. So there I was, in Madrid teaching high school English and wanting to get to Sevilla. I started applying to all the universities here and elsewhere in Andalusia the minute I got my luggage into my new apartment and dug out my computer. By this time, they’d figured out I wasn’t going to stop trying to get back to Spain.”

Emilio chuckled.

“To them, working for an American firm in an expatriate community—and where they told me to stay put—was the least of a few evils. Well, I didn’t stay in the ex-pat community. Then I got hired at Covarrubias University—”

“And they didn’t like it that you’d stepped out of your American boundaries.”

“Right, and my employer wasn’t a US firm anymore and I wasn’t in Madrid, which has a huge ex-pat community. I can’t even imagine what would happen if they knew about Leo’s or the CDs. So here I am, some years later, being in Spain, wasting my voice lessons singing in a nightclub-slash-nunnery—”

Emilio laughed again.

“—which, I will have you know, most nice Mormon girls wouldn’t do—”

“I wondered about that.”

“—and I am a very nice Mormon girl—”

“Unfortunately.”

“—doing exactly what I wanted to do, not one misstep along the way, and my parents still think that everything I have done is pure foolishness.”

“What would they rather you be doing?”

“They would rather I live at home where they can keep an eye on me.”

“So Sebastian said. Why?”

She rolled her neck on her shoulders to give him her duh look. “I’m special. Étienne is also special. He’d be in the same boat I am, except he found his wife as soon as he was let off his leash, and they are confident in Tess’s ability to manage Étienne’s specialness.”

At his continued look of bewilderment, she said, “We’re freaks. Mentally. Or something. My mother and father are normal. They’ve never known quite what to do with us. Now, add to that: My oldest brother got hit by a car when he was ten and died, my older sister has Down’s syndrome and couldn’t pick me out of a lineup, my immediately older brother is a social worker in inner city Kansas City getting shot at every day, my twin thinks he’s a pirate, and my two younger sisters dress like Pippi Longstocking and Marilyn Manson, respectively. I don’t know their interests or talents or if they’re normal because right now they’re doing what girls that age do.

I, however, am a college professor who dresses like I just came off a catwalk. I happen to live in Spain and my biggest sin is breaking the Sabbath to go to the bullfights.”

“You’re the most normal one of them all.”

She nodded. “They can’t see past the Victoria they’ve constructed in their head.”

Emilio sighed heavily and shook his head, closing his fist gently over one of the rocks. “I’m sorry about your brother. What was his name?”

“Julien. I don’t remember him very well. I was three or four when that happened.”

“What is your older sister’s name?”

“Arsène. My younger sisters are Célie and Aimée. And my older brother is Felix.”

“Ah, very French. Sebastian said your mother sends him here to check on you. Why don’t they come here to check on you?”

“I get mad and refuse to talk to them because they question everything about my life, right down to what’s in my refrigerator and medicine cabinet.”

“Do you talk to them?”

She shrugged. “My mom calls every couple of months. We talk for about a half hour, I guess.”

Emilio’s thumbs caressed the rough surface of the mineral. He turned it over, examined it. “Fool’s gold,” he murmured. “You find gold every time you do what your parents think is foolish.”

She paused. “There is one thing they’ve been right about.”

“Oh?”

“Nothing I did. Just … who I am. Part of why they want me to move back home is to protect me from the harsh reality that no man will ever love me.”

His body tensed a little bit. “You’re only thirty-two,” he murmured. “There’s plenty of time.”

“It’s not about time,” she said airily. “Time isn’t going to fix me. It’s about the fact that I am unlovable. What they don’t understand is that I am perfectly aware of this and I don’t need to be protected from big bad reality.

“The pyrite,” she continued, “reminds me that, while I might be special and I might not be able to win friends and influence people, and I will never get married because no man would be able to stand me that long, every foolish thing I have done has brought me to where I want to be. And where I want to be is on my couch being a normal person talking with a normal person who is a chemist. They would be very impressed.”

He burst out laughing. “A torero. That’s not normal, by anyone’s definition.”

She wrinkled her nose with her conspiratorial grin. “I wouldn’t tell them that part.”

“It sounds to me like they love you very much.”

She paused. “Too much.”

“Perhaps … they don’t want to lose you the way they lost your oldest brother.”

Victoria blinked. Scowled. “Étienne doesn’t get treated this way. Why me?”

“Your older brother had already died when you got separated from your parents in Paris, no?”

She nodded.

“And weren’t you hit by a car? You said you were in the hospital for a while. How old were you when that happened?”

“Ten,” she said slowly.

It had been such a long time ago, her external scars all camouflaged by her freckles and her other wounds long forgotten. “I had some internal injuries and a concussion,” she added hesitantly, Emilio’s point beginning to seep into her brain.

He said nothing.

“I never thought of it that way,” she whispered, sorrow and shame that she never thought of it washing over her.

“It is a great leap of faith to let your children go.” He shrugged. “I don’t have children—” He paused. “—that I know of. But I’m old enough to be my siblings’ father, and I’ve acted like it since our father died. They do all still live at home, but that’s by their choice.”

“Are you taking my parents’ side, then?” she asked low.

“I can empathize, yes. But if my siblings proved that they were successful in everything they tried, that they keep climbing the ladder of life without falling and they’re happy, at some point, I’d have to concede that they knew what they were doing and leave them to it.”

She could feel the emotions warring in her now. “That’s why I’ve been mad. I keep proving it, but they don’t see it.”

“Perhaps, when they think of the things you do, the only thing they can feel is the panic when their precious daughter was lost to them the way their precious son was—twice.”

Victoria, awash in great amounts of emotion she didn’t understand, sighed helplessly.

Emilio gathered her up closer in his arms until her head was against his shoulder. It was her favorite thing, to curl up with Emilio, and now she needed his strength and insights to seep into her. Occasionally she wished she could do that, think about what other people might be thinking or feeling and extrapolate motives. It must be a useful skill.

“Speaking of your twin,” he finally said, his baritone voice a comforting rumble in his chest. “I have deadlines this week. I probably won’t be able to see you or call until Saturday night.”

“That’s okay,” she said, yawning. “Summer term ends in three weeks and I have to prepare for finals. I only have two weeks of intersession after that, so I’ll be prepping for fall term and I usually don’t come up for air.”

“Good. Convenient.” He paused. “You’re getting radio play. Did you know that?”

Victoria gasped and shot up straight, gaping at him. “Are you serious?”

He smiled at her and the thought briefly crossed her mind how much she loved his smile. “On the pop stations. What is old has become new again, wrapped up in a package with a beautiful bow. Who can resist you?”

She rolled her eyes. “Anybody who’s spent more than twenty-four hours with me.”


16: A COLD AND LONELY, LOVELY WORK OF ART

That woman was going to drive him out of his mind, he thought darkly as he showered. Her body’s constant proximity to his was maddening. She had no compunction about cozying and curling up with him, but she never touched him with her hands. A hug here and there was about as demonstrative as she got, and only when he had done or said something she found extraordinarily delightful.

What those things were, he couldn’t predict or he’d avoid them like the plague because he wanted her so badly he could barely stand to be around her. Something had to give because he didn’t know how much longer he could resist her and he was pretty sure he’d spent more than twenty-four hours with her.

Not only was she getting airplay, she was getting a lot of it. Nonstop. Her CDs were climbing the Spanish pop charts and now he wondered if it would spread outside of the country.

She never made much of a splash in the US, but she’s big in Spain!

He’d never in his life imagined being married to a celebri—

Married.

Married.

He hadn’t just thought that, had he?

His chin dropped to his chest and he leaned against the wall.

“God help me,” he whispered.

Somehow he finished his shower and wandered into the kitchen for a beer. He was sitting at the table when his mother strode in looking for a late-night snack. She was brisk now, her back straight, her energy infectious. She had gotten an attractively cut and styled wig in her original blonde, and she had begun wearing makeup again. His sisters had taken her shopping for new clothes. He’d noticed, but hadn’t said anything.

“You look good, Mamá.”

“I agree,” she said vaguely as she stood in front of the refrigerator inspecting its contents. She opened the freezer and took out a TV dinner, threw it in the microwave, then cast him a glance while it cooked.

“When should I expect Velvet for dinner?” she asked cheerfully. “Or should I say, Dr. LaMontagne, who asks you such interesting questions?”

Emilio sighed and looked down at the table.

“Emilio! I want to meet her, not bite her head off.”

He shook his head. “It’s a publicity stunt to boost her CD sales. That’s it.”

She didn’t say anything. The microwave beeped. There were noises of utensil-getting and drink-pouring and chair-scraping and bite-taking. “You have never been able to lie to me, mi hijo,” she said after a while. “You are in love with her and if you lie to me about that, I will thrash you.”

He laughed softly.

But he didn’t say anything.

“I’d like to see you married before I die.”

“That is unlikely,” he mumbled.

“Speaking of my imminent death, you forgot my doctor’s appointment today.”

His head snapped up. “Oh, Mamá, I’m sorry!”

She waved that off. “Cristina took me. The doctor—the one who wanted to keep me on chemo and radiation? He scheduled me for a biopsy tomorrow, so whatever you are doing, cancel it. He is not happy to have been proven wrong. Forcing him to admit he was wrong was difficult. But there was less cancer on the x-ray, so the biopsy is to find out why.”

She took another bite and chewed in silence because Emilio couldn’t formulate anything to say. He was ecstatic, but wary. And his wariness smothered his ecstasy until it went away because hope was not something he could afford to indulge in.

“So if you are waiting until after I die to marry, it may be a long wait.”

He tried not to smile, but it was difficult.

She waved a fork. “I know, I know. You do not want to get your hopes up. I am happy I will not die a miserable, dried-up old prune. No, I am simply happy, because I refuse to take anything for granted, particularly my children. You’re drinking beer.”

Of course she would notice that. He drank beer when he was really troubled. It dulled his mood just enough to be able to start a rough sort through a situation without getting hung up on details, but didn’t relax him enough to allow him to ignore it.

“Tell her.”

“She wouldn’t believe me,” he muttered, thinking about Sebastian’s take on Lydia’s predicament. It hadn’t been analogous then, but it was now. “It hasn’t been two months since we met, and I have no credibility.” Just like Jack Blackwood. “She knows too much about my history.”

“Mm, well, I did warn you about that, I believe.”

“So you did,” he said low.

“Emilio.” She bored her index finger into the table. “Dr. Victoria LaMontagne will be here Wednesday evening for supper.”

Emilio sighed. There were few things Dolores asked of him, and even fewer that she demanded.

But what she asked for, he gave her.

What she demanded, he gave to her as fast as humanly possible.

•  •  •
Supper was an unmitigated disaster.

For Emilio.

And only for Emilio.

Victoria had charmed Dolores the moment they met, when Victoria stared at her in open-mouthed shock, studying her up and down before blurting, “I expected you to look awful!

Emilio had dropped his face in his palm. His siblings were gaping at Victoria. So was Dolores, until she started to laugh, then laugh harder until she couldn’t catch her breath.

Victoria, oblivious to everything else, hastened to guide her gently to a chair and ask her over and over if she needed a drink or anything, but Dolores, still in the throes of hilarity, tears running down her cheeks, simply shook her head. She couldn’t speak.

“Oh, I am so, so sorry,” Victoria said, panicked, taking Dolores’s hand and petting it. “That was a terrible thing to say, wasn’t it? I have no manners at all. I shouldn’t be allowed out without duct tape over my mouth. I meant to say that you look wonderful. Well, as wonderful as someone with cancer can, I suppose.”

That was when Cesar, Emilio’s oldest half-brother, began to laugh. Max had been pressing his fist to his mouth, and now Emilio knew why, because he started to snicker. Pilar and Cristina looked at each other with their lips pulled between their teeth.

Emilio sighed and waved everyone off to the dining room so he could take care of this. It was too late. Dolores adored her. His siblings thought she was hilarious.

He was trapped.

After Dolores had calmed and Victoria was mostly reassured that she wasn’t offended, Victoria proceeded to grill every person at the table about every detail of their lives. Thoughtless, tactless things fell out of her mouth like a waterfall, and every last one of them ate it up.

“You remind me of my mother,” Dolores said after she wound down from another bout of rousing laughter. “She would say exactly what was on her mind. She was not popular in the village, but everyone knew where they stood with her.”

Victoria grinned. “I knew it couldn’t just be me!”

Dolores shook her head. “I will suppose this makes things difficult at your job?”

“Very,” Victoria returned matter-of-factly. She told the story of the lazy student with the lazy government official father who was too lazy to proposition her properly.

“What would a proper proposition be?” Dolores challenged with a wicked grin.

Victoria thought for a moment. “I’m not sure,” she finally admitted cheerfully. “I’ve never been properly propositioned.”

Emilio caught the significant look Dolores cast at him, but Victoria didn’t. Thankfully, she also missed his siblings’ pointed expressions of encouragement and demands.

“Since you are straightforward and we are family,” Dolores said. Emilio almost choked. “The papers say you claim to be a virgin.”

This would not end well.

Victoria nodded matter-of-factly. “I am.”

“This is a strict teaching of your church, no?”

“Yes, but it’s never been a problem for me. I’m frigid.”

Every person at that table choked, except Emilio, who’d been counting the seconds until she said it. Victoria reached over and pounded Dolores on the back and, again worried, asked her over and over again if she was okay.

Emilio smirked at the now-horrified glances cast his way. That would teach them.

“If you’d not say that to the press,” Emilio drawled, “it would be helpful.”

She huffed at him. “Emilio, I am not stupid.”

“No, but you start talking and pretty soon, your brains are all over the floor.”

She paused and considered that, then nodded. “You’re right. Stop me before I get to that point.”

“Oh, I will.”

“On second thought, it might actually help.”

“No,” he said flatly, without explanation. Somewhere, somehow, somebody would find out he actually had gotten her in bed, and he could count on at least a few reporters speculating that he’d raped her.

She glared at him and growled, but snapped, “Fine.”

Finally—finally!—Dolores said, “Well, mi hija, I have had a lovely evening with you. It has been so lovely with so much laughter, I am worn out and I will sleep very well tonight. I would like to begin that right away.”

They were best friends by the time Emilio got Victoria out of his house and into the car.

But by the time they reached her front door, he realized she was upset. About what, he couldn’t fathom because she’d won the souls of every member of his family.

He’d started to ask her, to talk to her, to find out what was wrong, but she flashed him that fake smile again and closed the door in his face.

And for once in their very short acquaintance, he had no clue what to do for her.


17: A BARNUM AND BAILEY WORLD

Victoria was so very grateful she and Emilio had heavy workloads this week—except for that disastrous dinner where she’d said every possible thing wrong. They’d been in stitches, all right—at her.

The harder she’d tried to say the right things, the worse it got, but the best she could do was tough it out. It was so rare Victoria was embarrassed about anything she did or said, that now, knowing Emilio’s family found her a laughingstock, she was mortified.

I’m frigid.

How? Why?

It was painful.

Deeply, darkly painful.

She’d said little on the way home, sitting on her side of the back seat and Emilio sitting on his. She’d looked out the window, but when Emilio asked her quietly if something was wrong, she’d flashed him her most well-practiced brilliant smile and chirped, “Goodness, no!” She might have attempted to say how lovely his family was, but it’d come out wrong, so she kept her mouth shut.

… you start talking and pretty soon, your brains are all over the floor.

It hadn’t hurt when he’d said it. It was only later, in the car, in the silence, that she understood. He didn’t think much more of her than his family did, and he was helping her only because he wanted to get her in bed. Just like every other interesting man who’d bothered to chat with her for more than an hour.

The mystery woman in the stands he couldn’t catch: Gone.

The mystery singer at a club he couldn’t get into: Gone.

Victoria LaMontagne, thoughtless, rude, and completely clueless: Present and accounted for.

She’d flashed him another smile right before she’d chirped goodnight and quietly closed the door.

And now she was lying on her bed, curled up and aching for what couldn’t be. She didn’t know what that would be if it could be, but whatever it could’ve been couldn’t be now.

Crud, she’d even confused herself.

Harriet, that girl of yours screeches worse than a three-year-old trying to play a violin. You’re wasting your money on voice coaches.

Trudy, you shut your mouth before I shut it for you.

Oh, good ol’ Aunt Trudy was back, her voice popping up in Victoria’s head in rare moments of doubt, her mother’s much-younger sister, who gleefully made sure her and her cousins’ sorest spots were stripped open for her hot-iron pleasure. It had never affected Étienne much. Victoria had walked around as if she were oblivious, but she couldn’t hide her vague bewilderment at her aunt’s random cruelty. It simply made no sense.

Victoria didn’t screech, it was true. But on rare occasions like this, the Aunt Trudy in her head could say anything and everything—and she did. So far as she could remember, this hadn’t happened since she’d graduated from KU and caught the first flight back to Europe.

She went to sleep that way, curled up, eyes dry. She didn’t cry much. But she dreamt about Dr. Halvorson.

And Dr. Piedmont.

And El Draque.

She awoke bleary-eyed and dragged herself to work, dragging the paparazzi along behind her. She lectured so properly, one of her students had raised his hand to ask her if something was wrong. It was Thursday. If she never had to see Emilio again, it would be too soon, but now her salary at Leo’s depended on his presence.

It grew dark in her office, but Victoria didn’t feel like going home. What would she do there that she couldn’t do at work? She turned the lights on. Called the café down the street for delivery. Slapped a stack of blue books on her desk. Did some filing and book rearranging. Paid the delivery boy. Plopped in her desk chair.

And did nothing.

She was a good teacher, dammit. Her students got hired.

She was a good linguist, dammit. Her ideas got traction.

She was a good writer, dammit. Her papers got published.

She was a good scholar, dammit. She was somewhere around the top of the English-as-a-Second-Language food chain for a reason.

Even if she did crush students’ egos, and then so what. There was still her body of work.

Even if she couldn’t get tenure, and then so what. There was still her body of work.

Even if she was a fraud, and then so what. There was still her body of work, and she defied anybody to try to discredit it.

She was an adequate singer, not a great one, and no voice teacher was going to make her one. And then so what. She sang the kind of music she liked, got lots of fawning praise and starry-eyed admiration, an occasional sonnet and lots of flowers—and got paid for it.

Getting paid for a hobby—now that was an accomplishment, and it didn’t matter if she was a fraud. Nobody cared.

It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.

Her life was at a crossroads, but all her roads led to some vast landscape of nothing because they all petered out. Scraggly asphalt turning into deeply pitted and sectioned concrete turning into axle-breaking gravel into dirt and finally into endless scorched sparse prairie.

And it didn’t matter if her CDs made money. It didn’t matter if she got famous. Because if she wasn’t teaching, the only use she’d have for the money while wandering the sparse prairie of her life was as kindling.

She wasn’t lonely; she liked solitude, although she could only take so much before she needed attention. Growing up with an older sister with special needs, an activist older brother who was constantly in trouble, and a twin who needed as much attention as Victoria did and got more, had left Victoria ignored quite a bit of the time.

Alone, she’d roamed Kansas City whenever she wanted to get the attention she needed. They didn’t realize Étienne was rarely with her on these jaunts, that he spent most of his time in their father’s workshop gleefully diving into the LaMontagne family tradition of engineering—

—until, just before she graduated from high school, she’d been stranded at a showcase hotel and spa far north of the metro area because she’d driven her date crazy. She’d been on her own so long, it didn’t even occur to her to call her parents to pick her up. She called a cab, but there were none available to pick her up until morning, so she got a room and when she checked out the next day, the cab was waiting for her as promised.

After all that freedom, she was utterly baffled by their panic that she hadn’t come home, she hadn’t called, they had no idea where she’d gone, and they didn’t know who her date was. Victoria had done what any smart woman would do, provided she had money to do it. Her confusion made them angry, her enumeration of all her adventures to prove she was perfectly capable fed it, and it all spiraled downward from there.

That was when they put her in a straitjacket.

Acceptance letter to MIT, burned.

Acceptance letter to BYU, ripped.

Acceptance letter to Mizzou, crumpled and trashed.

Acceptance letter to KU, slipped in the recycle bin.

Acceptance letter to UMKC … gilded and framed.

That was when she’d stood her ground, although there was only so much she could do. Though she felt and acted like an adult, the calendar said she was sixteen. She got to go to KU, but only if she commuted, one hundred miles round trip. She didn’t know what that solved, since being on the road was more dangerous than living on campus.

Didn’t her ability to fend for herself count for anything? She didn’t bother anybody; she didn’t make demands; she had life skills Étienne would never have and they’d been hard won. She was proud of them.

Arsène couldn’t be on her own because along with her Down’s syndrome had come severe heart defects. Felix was in and out of jail on behalf of his causes, but he was a boy and his causes were righteous. Étienne had never had to fend for himself because their father plowed his engineering path for him. Célie and Aimée, when they weren’t helping Arsène, were into things whatever little girls were into.

Overnight, Victoria had somehow—and she didn’t know quite how—turned into the problem child. She began to live for her twenty-first birthday when the calendar would announce her adulthood, but she’d faced the same crossroad then as today:

What do I do now?

Victoria did get a We’re proud of you and a party for graduating from college.

She got a reluctant We’re proud of you and a party for completing a mission honorably, but a week-long dressing-down for disappearing for the three months she was at the Missionary Training Center in Utah until she’d allowed Étienne and Felix to tell them she was in Spain.

She got a That’s lovely, sweetheart, but what are you going to do with it? for earning the doctorate she had paid for because her parents refused to.

Every congratulations came with a caveat. Victoria, sweetheart, please stop this. We love you and we want to protect you. Please settle down and we’ll figure out what you can do with your life. Temp services are always hiring. Or you could find a trade.

And then … she’d gotten a prestigious job teaching overseas. I am leaving. If you want me to stay, you’re going to have to get a court order to admit me to a psychiatric hospital, and you will never be able to prove I’m crazy.

It was only Felix’s intervention that kept them from packing up the girls and following her to Spain.

Are you nuts? She’s twenty-two and she’s proven over and over again she can function on her own—unlike Étienne—so what’s the problem? Crud, I’d want to get out of the country, too. If you ever want her to speak to you or see you again, let—her—go.

She had conceded to allowing her father’s boyhood friend—who was quite familiar with Madrid—to help her get settled, and he had traveled from Toulouse to do it. Though she was perfectly capable of doing it herself, she was happy she’d accepted the offer, since he was a lot of fun and made her arrival not only smooth, but special.

Victoria always landed on her feet. She’d had to.

So why was she doing this stupid masquerade? She was going to get fired eventually because Dr. Ching simply did not like her. She couldn’t blame him for that. Not many people liked her, which was fine, until her job depended on someone’s opinion of her.

And Victoria would land on her feet.

Again.

Alone.

Her overarching goal was financial independence. That was nonnegotiable. It remained no matter what happened. Her living expenses were minimal and she faithfully put half her paycheck away every payday, letting Sebastian work his magic on it until she had enough to buy her apartment building.

That had always been her plan and Sebastian had agreed, surprised by her foresight. It would give her a better source of residual income than finicky CD sales. But, as Emilio had pointed out, if she really did want it, she wouldn’t spend so much money on her shoes, perfume, and bullfight tickets—in the shade yet.

She couldn’t get married. Nobody could stand her for long.

She wouldn’t have a family. Heaven help any child who had to put up with her.

I’m frigid.

She winced.

Even church was off limits to her until the photographers went away because her bishop hadn’t been able to find a different solution.

She was beautiful. And brilliant.

And so what.

It had never made any difference in the long run. Or the short run, either, depending on how “run” was defined.

She knew exactly what she wanted, but those two things depended on decisions somebody else had to make, so they remained vague hopes.

She jumped sky high when the door opened abruptly. Her mouth tightened. “Dr. Ching.”

“Dr. LaMontagne,” he returned, walking into her office and arranging himself genteelly in a wing chair in front of her desk.

“What do you want?” she asked wearily, rubbing her temple, only vaguely realizing she was speaking English. It didn’t matter. “And why does it have to be tonight?”

“It has to be tonight,” he returned haughtily in perfect English, examining his fingernails, “because you refuse my invitations to meetings and personal interviews.”

She dropped her hand and stared at him stonily. “I’m not sure whether you’re being passive-aggressive or you don’t know my schedule, but you schedule our meetings during my office hours and while I’m in class. Do you really think I’m going to blow my students off for your bureaucratic posturing?”

He returned her gaze without flinching.

“I can’t read your expression,” she snapped. “Speak plainly. In words I will understand.”

He sniffed. “I don’t like you.”

She chortled. “Oh, there’s news! Care to tell me how I hurt your feelings?”

He rolled his eyes and huffed. “You did not hurt my feelings. I don’t like you because I don’t know what to expect from you—”

Her eyebrow rose. “Excellence, Ching. You can expect excellence from me.”

“—except that when I expect you to show up for meetings, I know to expect that you will not show up.”

Hm. “Well, at least I’m consistent in one area.” And now she was at the end of the asphalt, looking into the vast wasteland of her future. “Ching, just fire me. Get it over with. Yes, you have to put up with me until May, but after that—”

“Sadly!” he snapped. “I am not here to fire you.”

Victoria scrambled to rearrange her assumptions. “Uh … okay. That’s great. I think.”

“Not for me!”

“And you are also consistent. I like that in a man.”

He snarled at her. “This is about the ESL conference.”

Oh. That. She let her arms and shoulders drop, and she looked up at the ceiling. “Ching, it’s being coordinated through the languages department and the U of S is hosting the thing. And in case you didn’t know, I already have three panels and two workshops to run. Why are you here talking to me about this?”

“If you had shown up for your meeting with me today, you would know the answer to that question.”

“And I already pointed out that you schedule our meetings for when I’m in class and you can’t seem to be bothered to write a memo. Why is that?”

He sighed heavily and locked his jaw and looked up at the black-velvet matador on the wall behind Victoria’s chair. Victoria watched him, then more closely when he didn’t speak.

“That is the ugliest thing I have ever seen,” he remarked suddenly.

That made her laugh. “My grandmother gave it to me.”

“Ah. Well. Hm.” He poked his thumb and forefinger in his eyes and began to rub them. “We have a problem.”

“Well, if you’re not going to fire me, who’s we?” she asked wearily.

“We, meaning Covarrubias University and the University of Sevilla. All of us.”

She scowled. “What? You and I are in my office at ten o’clock at night to solve ninety thousand students’ problems?”

“Yesterday,” he continued as if she hadn’t spoken, “Dr. Weidenkeller died.”

Victoria shot up, planted her hands on her desk, and leaned as far toward Ching as she could. Exams, quizzes, reports, bluebooks, pens went everywhere. “WHAT?!

He didn’t answer, but his expression was one of great satisfaction that he’d gotten a reaction out of her and he meant to enjoy it.

That was quite all right with her because she couldn’t seem to think.

Dr. Weidenkeller, one of the leading authorities in the field, was the opening keynote speaker for this year’s annual International ESL Conference, and held so much clout that he could demand anything he wanted. And one of the things he had wanted was for the venue to be changed from the University of California–San Diego to Covarrubias University, where ESL was an integral part of all programs.

The conference committee had tried but Covarrubias University was small—ten thousand students—and didn’t have the facilities to host a global conference. Fortunately, the University of Sevilla, with its enrollment of eighty thousand, had stepped in to offer its facilities.

This was agreeable to Dr. Weidenkeller.

The change was made.

Department chairs around the world cursed.

Plans and agendas were reorganized.

And now he was dead.

Six weeks before the conference.

Victoria didn’t care that he died. She cared that the conference was doomed. Her panels and workshops were important to her, and not just because she’d have lots and lots of fawning attention.

She flopped onto her desk, her arms outstretched and her cheek half on top of a scattered pile of papers, looking out over Sevilla twinkling in the darkness.

“Ugh. Must you be so melodramatic?”

“I must,” she whimpered. “Who’s going to give the keynote now?” Then she gasped, her eyes popping open wider. “Not Dr. Tomcat!”

Ching snorted with what might have been amusement. “No. Dr. Medone spent the day lobbying for the honor, but was denied.”

Victoria breathed a long sigh of relief, then mentally went through the roster of people most likely to be able to show up in Spain to give a keynote address in such a short time who could also make it worthwhile to attend. She was muttering names to herself, when Ching said, “The replacement keynote has already been chosen.”

Victoria turned her head so her chin was propped on her desk and she was looking at her boss. “That was fast. Died yesterday, slotted today? Who?”

His eyes narrowed at her. “You.”

Victoria’s mind turned to TV snow.

“Congratulations,” he said testily, arising and heading to the door. He turned and said flatly, “As the only language professor in the International Business Department, you will be representing me. And Medone is furious that the only language professor even considered for the honor was the only one not in his department. Do not embarrass me, Dr. LaMontagne.”


18: THAT’S ALL I’VE EVER BEEN

When she was summoned to the offices of the chair of languages the next morning, she ignored it. It was a sore point for Dr. Medone that Victoria’s specialty was under the auspices of the business department. Dr. Ching might be her nemesis, but their common enemy was Dr. Medone, otherwise known—amongst students and faculty alike—as Dr. Tomcat.

There were a lot of things Victoria was willing to do to get tenure. Jumping through Ching’s and the administration’s hoops was one of them. Kissing Sanz’s butt was another. Moving over to languages and being under Dr. Tomcat’s supervision was not.

So she went to class and did exactly what she planned to do. Fortunately, it was a sitcom day, but unfortunately, she couldn’t zone out because she had to gauge who got which jokes, then explain them. She went back to her office and carried on as if nothing had happened.

It was deep into siesta by the time someone dared intrude on Victoria’s mood.

“Yes, I know, don’t embarrass you, blah blah blah,” she said vaguely as she graded papers, never looking up when the door opened abruptly. “Send a memo. Just keep Dr. Tomcat away from me.”

“Uh … ”

Victoria’s head popped up to see Emilio in the threshold of her office. She flushed immediately.

And he noticed, because he looked at her warily. “Who’s Dr. Tomcat?”

She waved a hand and bent her head again to pretend to grade. “Luigi Medone,” she muttered at her papers. “Chair of Languages. He wants me. In bed and in his department. Can’t have me either place. Now upset over— Politics. Status. Ching despises him more than I do, but now I’m caught between them. For the moment, at least, Ching and I are allies.” She didn’t have the mental energy to explain. She was still stunned and now Emilio was in her office …

“Things are getting serious then?” he asked quietly.

Do not embarrass me, Dr. LaMontagne.

Emilio’s presence reminded her of Wednesday’s dinner and that, Leo’s or not, she was perfectly capable of embarrassing herself on a stage. She barely managed to speak, and then only because she had to think about what TV people might say.

“How is your mother?” Victoria asked airily without looking up. “Have the biopsy results come in?”

He hesitated, but answered. “The cancer has receded quite a bit. Thirty percent. They have stopped recommending the usual treatments.”

“That’s excellent news.”

“Victoria, what happened Wednesday? I thought you were having a good time.”

She gripped her red pen so hard it almost broke. “I had a wonderful time.”

Suddenly there was a large hand planted right in the middle of the test she was grading, and his body was right there next to her, stealing her breath.

“You’re upset.”

“I’m never upset. Sometimes I get mad.”

“You’ve been upset since I took you home Wednesday night. What did we do?”

“You and your family were lovely. I, on the other hand, dumped my brains out all over the floor because I couldn’t stop talking.”

He breathed Oh so softly she wasn’t actually sure she heard it. “Victoria, I apologize. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.”

“I don’t have feelings. Besides, it wasn’t anything I didn’t deserve. Your family was right to laugh at me.”

He stiffened. “At you?”

“Yes, but I made it so easy, didn’t I? Insulting your mother right off the bat. But every time I tried to say something right, it just got worse. And I couldn’t stop talking and I couldn’t stop talking because I was trying to—”

She stopped, but only because she was so surprised that he’d put his hand over her mouth. “Stop talking,” he said. “My family adores you.”

Victoria sat still, her heart pounding, her nose breathing in the faint scent of cologne and chemicals and soap, her eyes blinking back moisture, her brain attempting to process that while he waited.

“My mother,” he said softly after a while, after she hadn’t opened her mouth in all that long while, “thinks you are the brightest star in the sky. Max is half in love with you. Pilar and Cristina want to know where you shop. Cesar wants to ask rude questions about the US other people are too polite to ask or answer.”

She gulped. Was he lying? She didn’t know. She jerked her face away from his hand and stood, shoving her chair back so hard it hit the credenza behind her. She walked to the window of her second-floor office that looked out onto the quad to see Rafael Covarrubias smirking right back at her as if he knew her.

She took a deep breath and wondered when her world had collapsed. Suddenly the conference seemed as far away as it had always been because now Emilio was in her office, turning her inside out and upside down.

“Victoria, look at me.”

Turning slowly, because she didn’t want to, she waited for him to say something now that she was looking at him. But he said nothing and she began to study him:

The faint outline of muscular shoulders under his dress shirt.

The slight curve of his hip into his backside mostly covered by slightly loose khakis.

The calfskin loafers on his feet.

When he still didn’t say anything, she started her scrutiny over again, slowly, from the loafers back to his hips and his shoulders, and then his face, happy lines faintly carved into his skin.

“Like what you see?” he asked low.

Her brow wrinkled, because there was something about him that was suddenly familiar to her in a completely different way. There was something familiar about the situation and her flutters around him, but not in context of their relationship.

She looked down at the floor, unseeing, sifting through her memories, trying to figure out this sense of having done this before.

A widower she’d met on her mission, with whom she and her companion had spent quite a bit of time and were rewarded with his conversion to the church.

A bookseller in a shop she’d frequented as a teenager, with whom she had deep conversations about Stoic and Enlightenment philosophers in between customers.

A UMKC engineering professor she met at the Nelson-Atkins art gallery a few weeks before her mission, and continued to meet two or three times a week to discuss art until she left.

The friend of her father’s who’d spent two months showing her Madrid and left with a wistful smile.

She focused on Emilio’s face. “You make me feel funny.”

“You know exactly how I make you feel,” he said flatly.

Her mouth tightened and she shook her head. “I don’t know what to call it. No. I mean— I don’t know what I mean!”

His brow rose. “Most of us call it desire. Last week, when we went to dinner. What almost happened? Twice?”

“That’s not important right now,” she said impatiently, rubbing her forehead. “I’m trying to figure something out. You’re ten years older than I am.”

He rolled his eyes. “I don’t know what that has to do with this.”

“You—” She sighed impatiently. “I don’t have words for this. I don’t understand. You’re like déjà vu all over again.”

“Oh?” he drawled. “There have been other men you wanted desperately to kiss?”

Dr. Halvorson.

Halvorson was the reason you went on a mission in the first place.

She shook her head in confusion and looked off, out her window again, trying to understand. But her mind was jumbled and she was breathless and tears were gathering in her eyes, which was even more disconcerting because she had to be really shaken up to cry.

Dr. Piedmont.

She jumped, startled, when she felt Emilio behind her, felt his hands gently closing on her arms. She looked down to see that big hand against her white blouse, watched his thumb caress her arm while she was feeling it at the same time.

She shivered and took a deep breath, raising her chin and closing her eyes against the ceiling when his fingertips barely brushed against her neck, sweeping her hair away so he could press his lips under her ear.

“Ice vagina,” she blurted. “Remember?”

“Stop it,” he murmured absently against her skin. “You and I both know that’s not true and it never was.”

The strength of his chest against her back.

The heat of his hands wrapped around her upper arms.

The rigidity of his penis against her backside.

All the while his mouth and tongue did … something … to her neck and shoulder.

She leaned back against him.

It was an entirely involuntary response.

“You know what this is,” he whispered. “Acknowledge it.”

“I’ve never felt this before.”

“You’ve felt it,” he whispered against her ear. “Perhaps not enough for you to call it something, but you’ve felt it and I make you want to feel all of it.”

“Emilio,” she breathed.

“Who were they, Victoria?” he asked as his mouth moved to the back of her neck and down her back a little, heading toward the crevice between her shoulder blades. “Who were the others?”

She didn’t answer. She couldn’t.

“Much older than you?”

“Yes,” she whispered.

“Well worn? Jaded? Brilliant?”

“Yes,” she sighed.

“They entertained you, made you laugh.”

“Yes,” she breathed.

“They liked you, found you charming.”

“Yes,” she moaned.

“And they slipped away from you before you knew what was happening.”

“Yes,” she whimpered.

She released a long breath and gave up, dropping her head forward to let him do what he wanted. His hands swept up her arms and he pulled away from her body only far enough to turn her around. She opened her eyes, lifted her head, and studied his face, the small smile—not of victory, but of camaraderie—then closed them again when he laid his palms on either side of her face and pulled her to him for a kiss.

Not her first.

Far from her first.

But definitely her first.

She tilted her head and opened her mouth of her own accord. He accepted the invitation, meeting her tongue halfway, stroking her, sucking on her, doing everything that had been done before, but not like this. Victoria wrapped her arms around his ribs and dug her manicure into his back.

He drew her closer to him, where she could feel his strength, her breasts crushed against his hard chest, and lower, to feel what she did to him. He tilted his head again and she went with the new position because she could not do otherwise.

All those faces in the past flashed across her mind again, and though she was fully aware of who was holding her, who was kissing her, she was also kissing them. The ones that got away.

Because she was too distracted to pay attention to what was swirling around in her lower belly, begging her to notice it.

She felt Emilio’s hand palming her butt, crushing her hips to his. He was making a point, shoving it in, and there it was—that tickle in her lower belly that wasn’t a tickle at all. It was a wave of promise—a hard wave of pleasure, begging fulfillment, ebbing and flowing. And they were there, in her mind, the lost opportunities.

Yet … here she was with this man who delighted her and found her delightful in spite of herself. She may or may not have had that with them, too, but she was here with Emilio and Emilio was real and had none of the qualms the others might have had.

“You’re all of them,” she whispered into his mouth.

“How many?” he rasped, now against her cheek.

“Six I can name right now. More I can’t.”

“Piedmont.”

“Yes.”

“Did they look like me?” Now he was at her throat.

“No.”

“You didn’t understand.”

“I was just so happy to have somebody intelligent to talk to … ”

He chuckled suddenly against her skin. “Oh, Victoria. You are incomparable.”

She gave him a watery smile when he raised his head and planted a kiss on her nose.

“Your brain was so starved for intellectual stimulation it didn’t devote any attention to your body’s needs.”

She scowled in thought, then nodded slowly. “I think … yes? I remember now, wanting something else besides, but the wanting was so … faint.”

He shifted his hips. “Feel that?” he said low in his throat.

“Yes,” she breathed, suddenly feeling empty between her legs, as she should, because it was the correct physiological response. Oh, thank heavens!

“Are you paying attention? Do you understand now?”

“Mmm hmmm.”

“Do you want?”

“Mmm hmmm.”

Because now what would fill her was only a few centimeters away.

“Do you want me or all the others, the missed opportunities, embodied in me?”

“Just you.” She could barely speak, she was so lost.

He palmed her chin. “Look at me.”

Her eyelashes fluttered up. His face was etched with intensity, passion. “Let me give you what you want, Victoria,” he whispered.

She could make it happen. Right now. That was a choice. A decision.

She pushed away from him a little. Slowly. Reluctantly.

So very reluctantly.

He would not be another one who got away—until he got tired of her.

“I’m not ready,” she murmured, her voice shaky, “and I—I wouldn’t anyway. Not before marriage. But, um, next time this happens, I’ll, uh, know what it is, and I—I’ll have you to thank.”

His expression changed so suddenly from intense and passionate to unreadable she didn’t have time to blink. “The next time?” he asked warily.

“I assume there will be someone after you,” she said, attempting to make herself clear up front. “But now I won’t throw the opportunity away out of ignorance.”

“I’m … a stepping stone for you?”

Her brow wrinkled. “More like a teething ring. Or the apple. Yes. You know, the one Eve ate so she could know.”

“Mother of God,” he whispered.

She studied his face and tilted her head. “Are you … angry with me?” she asked, now bewildered by his expression and the tension in his body.

“Uh … ” He released her—nearly pushed her away from him as if burned—and turned away, rubbing at his mouth.

“I’m not going to make any demands on you,” Victoria said quickly with a touch of panic. She’d already spent two days stewing over having lost her interesting friend. She didn’t want to lose him again. “I wasn’t hinting for you to marry me or anything. I know you’re not interested in marriage, much less to me. And even though I’ve never really thought it was a possibility, if I do get married, I would like to get married in my church. This, between you and me, it’s a publicity stunt. I know that. I remember. Please don’t think I expect anything from you.”

She watched him, standing there in the middle of her office with a hand on his hip, shaking his head as if he couldn’t believe what he was hearing, then dropping his face in his palm.

“Emilio! Listen to what I am saying! I don’t want you to think I’m going to be all clingy and stuff. I don’t want to lose my friend.” Her eyes were again filling with tears. Twice in one day. That was a record of epic proportions. “You’re one of only two real friends I have!”

“Goddammit,” he hissed, turning and glaring at her. “You are—” He closed his mouth. Opened it again. Closed, opened. “Indescribable. Unbelievable.”

She gaped at him, totally confused. “Emilio! Tell me in words I will understand what I have done or said that offended you?”

A teething ring?!” he bellowed. “The APPLE?!

Her tears dried immediately. “And why is that offensive?! You have had women all over the world!” She pointed to the window. “You sleep with them, you leave them. What are they to you? Nothing. Señora Sanz, because she was an opportunity to get back at the guy who wouldn’t hire you. Yvette Mallery, a twenty-four-year-old girl thrown out of Leo’s because you were done with her and she didn’t get the hint. I may seem oblivious about a lot of things, but I have never kidded myself that I am any different than they are. I will take whatever training and enlightenment you’re willing to give me up to a point, because I need it and after thirty-two years, I’m not likely to get it from anybody else.”

His jaw was practically on the floor. “You are not like them,” he said low, hoarse. “Don’t you dare put yourself in the same category.”

She shrugged helplessly. “You’re just like Sebastian. You’re just like Lydia’s—uh, person. Manslut. Jack. They don’t care. You don’t care! You’re so very interesting, and you seem to understand me, and you make me laugh, but the only thing you want from me is sex, just like the rest of them. And I’m fine with that because first, I’m not going to let that happen and second, I don’t expect anything better from you.”

But she wanted to.

In fact, it killed her that she couldn’t.

He stared at her, dumbfounded. He seemed to not be able to formulate any response, and honestly, Victoria didn’t know why he was so angry, because she was saying all the right things. She knew she was! And they were factually correct! Why was he angry? Were the words coming out wrong?

She tried again. “I’m not trying to insult you, Emilio! I’m just stating fact!”

That spurred him to action. Into whirlwind action, as he strode across the office and snatched the door open. “Choke on your facts, Victoria.”

Victoria winced at the slam of the door, hard enough to rattle the glass, and realized that she’d lost him again.

But this time, she didn’t know why.

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